Even before the votes were counted, the drumbeat of news about skyrocketing rates of diabetes seemed to have crossed a threshold – 40 percent of Americans will have diabetes sometime in their lives and a quarter of U.S. teens already have diabetes or pre-diabetes. With overwhelming scientific evidence showing that sugary drinks play a central role in the out-of-control diabetes epidemic, people were ready to take action.
While the soda industry relied on a tried-and-true playbook of fear-mongering, voters, parents and health care providers in Berkeley had had enough. Despite the most aggressive and expensive industry-sponsored campaign in the city’s history, voters held tight to common sense and passed, by a 3-1 margin, a tax on sodas and other sugary drinks that is bound to have repercussions in cities across California and the nation. In San Francisco, up against a $10 million media onslaught, a majority of voters supported a soda tax as well, but fell short of the required two-thirds threshold.
In many ways, it was never really a fair fight. Yes, Big Soda had the deep pockets, the sophisticated campaign staff, the paid activists and the ability to buy out every advertising medium in the region. But the industry lacked any way to alter the facts. America’s growing obesity and diabetes problems have taken a staggering toll on the public’s health, and sugary drinks are the leading culprit.
You have to give the beverage giants credit. They went down fighting. They dug deep into the old bag of arguments that tobacco used two generations earlier: lost jobs, an unfair burden on low-income consumers and increased cost of living.
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But the same arguments the beverage industry employed two years earlier to defeat similar soda taxes in Richmond and El Monte had grown threadbare. Times had changed and voters were now more concerned about protecting their children from a life of diabetes than keeping the price of a can of Coke under a dollar.
By any measure, Tuesday’s passage of the soda tax is a game changer for diabetes prevention and may be an early indicator that Americans will, in time, be less willing to give a free pass to products that sicken their communities.
Of course, the beverage companies will keep fighting. You can expect them to slander Berkeley voters as being “out-of-touch, fringe radicals.” Intent on isolating the contagion of consumers holding their product accountable for the damage it does, the beverage industry will try to keep other municipalities from funding needed children’s health programs with local soda taxes.
For besieged soda executives, though, the name-calling will do little to change a basic reality: Consumers aren’t stupid. With growing awareness and increased understanding of the harm caused by liquid sugar, more and more Americans are steering their shopping carts clear of the soda aisle.
And, as with tobacco and alcohol, taxes are increasingly being seen by voters as an appropriate and responsible way to curb the sale of unhealthy sugary drinks and raise money to fund nutrition education, healthier school lunches, more physical education teachers and after-school physical activity programs.
Sorry Pepsi, Coke and Dr Pepper – in more and more cities around the country, there will be a price to pay for selling unhealthy products. Soda taxes are inevitable.
Harold Goldstein is executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.