Residents of four cities will cast pivotal votes this Election Day in the national movement to tax sugary beverages – with supporters saying momentum is spreading even in the face of large opposition spending.

“First they laugh at you, then they fight you and then you win,” said Rachel K. Johnson, a professor of nutrition and pediatrics at the University of Vermont in Burlington. “I think when we first started talking about taxes on sugary drinks, people said, ‘You are crazy.’ … And now the beverage industry is pouring millions into fighting the taxes. Now, they are seeing sugar drink taxes as potential reality.”

Oakland, San Francisco and nearby Albany will consider a penny-per ounce tax on sodas, sports and energy drinks, canned sweet teas and juices with added sugars. Voters in Boulder, Colorado, will decide on a 2-cents-per-ounce tax.

The votes follow a Philadelphia City Council vote this past summer approving a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax. The American Beverage Association and others filed a lawsuit attempting to stop it from taking effect this January. In 2014, Berkeley, California became the first U.S. city to pass a so-called soda tax, when voters approved a 1-cent-per-ounce measure on distributors.

“There’s no doubt these are pivotal votes,” said David Goldberg of Healthy Food America, a nonprofit that focuses on food policy and health issues about conditions impacted by diet, such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease.

“Regardless of whether all of them pass, the whole movement around sugar and sugary drinks is building in momentum,” Goldberg said. “That’s why soda companies are putting in as much money as they are.”


Most recent election spending reports show the American Beverage Association and other industry representatives such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have outspent supporters by about 2-to-1.

According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the industry has spent $27.1 million to try to defeat the four ballot initiatives, compared to about $15 million by soda tax supporters, which include Houston billionaires Laura and John Arnold, and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg. The American Heart Association also has contributed and is working to support soda tax measures around the country.

In San Francisco, the beverage industry has spent at least $20.5 million, compared to $7.5 million from soda tax supporters and health groups, CSPI said.

The American Beverage Association says sugary drink taxes are misguided.

“Lawmakers and public-health activists may want to believe that taxes will solve our nation’s public health problems, but we just can’t tax our way to better health when it comes to diet,” the industry trade group said in its “Sip & Savor” blog. “These taxes have negative side effects: They hurt low-income families, small businesses, jobs and incomes.”

But advocates say the tax is one of many tools, along with education, that nudges people to decrease consumption of sugar-loaded drinks – and that it will help low-income families, who tend to have higher rates of obesity, heart disease, diabetes and other health problems.

“The evidence is solid about added sugars, and liquid sugar particularly, and their impact on health,” said Johnson, a former chair of the American Heart Association’s Nutrition Committee.

“We have more than a decade of rigorous research on obesity and consuming too much sugar, and its effects on diabetes and even heart disease,” she said.

Soda taxes also could become revenue sources for cities. That was a key factor in Philadelphia, where the mayor advocating that funds would help fund universal Pre-Kindergarten, parks and recreation centers.

Here’s a snapshot of how much supporters estimate the taxes will bring in annually:

  • San Francisco, $14.4 million
  • Albany, $223,000
  • Oakland, $6 million to $8 million
  • Boulder, Colorado, $3.8 million
  • Philadelphia, supporters predict $90 million in new revenue next year
  • Berkeley, which began collecting the tax in 2015, has raised $2 million as of August

Regardless of the election results, health advocates say the next step is to follow the momentum across the country.

Cook County, Illinois, could be one of those places. The County Board is expected to vote in mid-November on a budget proposal that includes a 1-cent per ounce tax on sweetened and diet beverages. The county, which includes Chicago, has more than 5 million people, making it the nation’s second-largest county behind Los Angeles.

“This wave is breaking across the country,” said Jim O’Hara, director of health promotion policy for the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. “And you clearly see the trend across the globe.”

The World Health Organization on Oct. 11 called for governments to tax sugar-sweetened drinks as part of the global strategy to reduce obesity.

France has a tax, and so does Mexico, where sales of sugar-sweetened beverages dropped by 6 percent in 2014, the first year the 1-peso-per-liter tax took effect, according to a study published in The British Medical Journal. Ireland and the United Kingdom both plan to introduce taxes in 2018.

“Clearly all of this also needs to be seen in the context of declining consumption since 1998,” O’Hara said. “That clearly indicates that consumers are realizing the increased health risk. But there needs to be more education about how much added sugar there is in the beverages outside of the regular soda category.”

According to a Gallup poll released last summer, most Americans are trying to avoid drinking soda.

Goldberg of HFA said his organization has had “lots of queries from communities around the country” interested in launching campaigns for a sugar-sweetened drink tax.

“It will soon be established as a bona-fide revenue source that the public will support,” he said, “and it comes with enormous health benefits.”