Study: Sugary Drink Consumption Down by Half in Berkeley Since Soda Tax Implemented

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Soft drinks were a substantial presence at most markets in 2014, including this one on Shattuck Avenue in Berkeley. (Patricia Yollin/KQED)

Public health researchers say Berkeley’s soda tax is working to reduce the consumption of sugary beverages in neighborhoods hit hardest by diabetes, obesity and other chronic health problems linked to too much sugar.

Ever since Berkeley voters overwhelmingly passed the nation's first penny-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages in 2014, a team at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health has been interviewing people on the street about what kind of drinks they consume.

Dr. Kristine Madsen, director of the Berkeley Food Institute, said researchers found that residents cut their consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages by 52 percent after the tax went into effect in 2015.

Madsen said this means soda taxes encourage people to hydrate in a healthier way and could reduce medical conditions like diabetes, obesity and chronic heart disease. Her research was published in the American Journal of Public Health on Thursday.

Back when she worked as a pediatrician in a clinic — diagnosing and treating preteens with diabetes — Madsen said she would have loved to have had an effective tool to prevent the diseases that a high-sugar diet can cause.

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Changing unhealthy habits is hard, Madsen said, as anyone who’s attempted a new diet or exercise regimen knows. She suggests that maybe the best way to treat these conditions isn't a pill, but legislation.

“It was so hard to change behavior, even with counseling, and particularly if you're in an environment where the healthiest things are not there or not affordable,” she said. “In this case, what we're changing is the price environment with regulations. So the price has gone up on these sugary beverages, and it has a dramatic impact on behavior — so much more than most of the interventions that we try either in medical practice or as public health practitioners.”

The beverage industry says it's not fair to blame the obesity crisis on sugary drinks alone. It also claims soda taxes are regressive and hurt the poor.

The survey-takers targeted low-income neighborhoods burdened by high rates of obesity and cardiovascular disease. The team polled 2,500 people about their drinking habits each year at high foot-traffic intersections in racially and demographically diverse neighborhoods across Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco, Madsen said.

The study does have limitations, according to the researchers, because Berkeley is a relatively small and highly educated city.

But from behind the counter at a corner market in South Berkeley, Fouad Fanhos has watched firsthand the trends that Madsen documented in her research.

As he fried chicken and listened to Yemeni love songs on a wireless speaker, he said customers at J & B Fine Foods Market complain about the extra cents tacked on to the cost of each soda. He said the beverage distributor’s delivery man restocks the refrigerator with fewer bottles lately.

“The salesman — he comes every day, and he finds the cooler full,” Fanhos explained. “But the customers can buy sugar if they want. They buy Kool-Aid and a sack of sugar.”

Outside on the corner, James Joon said he doesn't like paying extra taxes on anything. But all the same, he’s been watching what his 6-year-old son drinks.

“He don't drink soda anymore because he got nice teeth. He'd just be too hyper, and it's too much money. So I have him drink water," Joon said.

The researchers found the price hikes may not be the only factor driving the change in consumption in Berkeley. They reported that taxes also send a message about societal values, which could impact behavior.

“It's not enough to just educate people if you really are serious about making a change when there's an unhealthy population,” Madsen said.

The study found people in Oakland and San Francisco drank about the same amount of sugary drinks in 2017 as they did in 2014, which Madsen says suggests these changes were unique to Berkeley.

Oakland and San Francisco also passed taxes on sugary drinks, which went into effect in 2017 and 2018, respectively.

Politicians in Sacramento introduced bills this week to ban jumbo-size “Big Gulp” sodas and impose a statewide soda tax.

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