Two days after Seattle became the latest addition to a growing group of cities that have implemented a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, “Soda Politics” author and advocate Marion Nestle appeared Wednesday at Harvard University for a scheduled talk about the business of soda.
In a keynote address at the third annual “Healthy Foods Fuel Hungry Minds” conference in Boston, Mass., Nestle spoke to a room filled with education, foodservice and nutrition leaders about sugary beverages and, in her view, their not-so-sweet impact on K-12 school systems.
There are currently nine million Americans living in cities and counties that have an added tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. So-called “soda taxes” are also being implemented on a global level. While Nestle thinks such a tax could be “the new norm,” she told attendees that she thinks its greatest impact will be on school children.
“I think school food is the single most important advocacy that anybody can do because it has the biggest bang for the buck,” she said during the presentation. “By making changes in school food, you can change the lives of children.”
During the presentation, Nestle highlighted the impact of soda taxes by examining shifts in consumption of sugary drinks in the Berkeley, Calif. school system. Data collected by UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco, which looked at the percent change in consumption five months after the passage of Berkeley’s soda tax, found notable changes in the drinking habits of low-income residents. Berkley saw a 26 percent decline in the consumption of soda and a 36 percent decline in that of sports drinks. Water saw a 63 percent spike.
In Berkeley, revenue from soda taxes goes to children’s health programs in low-income areas that are battling particularly high rates of childhood obesity. Nestle noted that one of the great ironies and pain points of the soda tax initiative is that you need people to drink sugar in order to raise money for social programs.
Nestle also brought up the significant pushback on soda taxes from beverage giants and sugar proponents who call them “regressive.”
“Yes the taxes are regressive, but Type 2 diabetes is regressive,” she said.
Still, sugary beverages cannot be the only scapegoat in the obesity epidemic among children, according to Dariush Mozaffarian, Dean of the Tufts Friedman School of Nutrition Science & Policy. In his presentation, Mozaffarian pointed to a study evaluating changes in Body Mass Index (BMI) among children in K-12 districts where a soda tax was implemented found only a 0.5 to 0.75 percent change.
“It’s not nothing, but it’s not going to solve the obesity epidemic by itself,” Mozaffarian said.
Nestle agreed and said that both industry and schools should be calling for changes in distribution and consumption.
“I think trying to stop the production of sugary beverages is probably not politically feasible,” Nestle said. “Marketing hasn’t been working very well. [But] you can do quite a lot to change the distribution by establishing soda free zones in schools, workplaces and hospitals, and other types of institutions. And the soda tax is aimed at affecting consumption.”
“These efforts are trying to make healthier choices the easier choices; to establish a food environment in which eating healthier becomes the norm and is much easier to do,” she continued. “I think schools are a terrific place to do this.”
Nestle Comments on Pending Massachusetts ‘Soda Tax’
Nestle kicked off her presentation by addressing the pending soda tax bill in Massachusetts, which if passed, would be the first of its kind at a state level.
Under the proposal, any drink with less than five grams of added sugar per 12 fluid ounces would not be taxed. A drink with five to 19 ounces would be taxed at one cent per ounce, and a drink with 20 or more grams of added sugar would be taxed at two cents per ounce. The proposed tax could raise $368 million a year, according to Nestle.
“It’s interesting that it’s Massachusetts because Massachusetts has a long history of taxes on sugar,” she joked. “We can go back to 1776 when Adam Smith wrote ‘The Wealth of Nations’, in which he said, sugar and tobacco are commodities that are taxable. They are exactly the things we should be taxing, we don’t need them, we just love them. And they are very proper subjects for taxation. Still, Massachusetts has a history of not liking taxes on sugar. They’re famous for it.”