The Stop Sign vs. the Soda Tax

Chile’s unusual approach to reducing obesity could prove to be the world’s most effective.

A paper cup with a plastic lid and straw
Wilfredo Lee / AP

Over the past five years, more than 40 cities and countries around the world have passed a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. These soda taxes are designed to improve public health—but do they? Or have all the doom-and-gloom predictions of the soda industry come true instead? Researchers have been crunching the data, and in this episode we have the scoop: Do soda taxes work? We’ve also got the story of how the soda industry is fighting back, with dirty tricks in Colombia and blackmail in California. Finally, are soda taxes even the best intervention for improving public health? We have brand-new results from a radical, world-first experiment in Chile. Listen in now as we reach the epic finale of the great soda wars!

When the first modern soda tax in the United States passed in Berkeley, California, in 2014, public-health advocates were elated. They saw it as the first step toward finally tackling the city’s growing rates of obesity, particularly among kids, and the start of a wave of similar measures across the country. Meanwhile, the soda industry had argued the taxes would cause significant job losses and economic hardship for the poor, that people would just buy soda elsewhere, and that the taxes wouldn’t work to reduce consumption anyway. Who was right? This episode, we talk with the researchers Sara Bleich, Barry Popkin, and Kelly Brownell, who have been monitoring the first few years of the soda taxes’ implementation in Berkeley, Philadelphia, Mexico, and elsewhere to find out how well the taxes worked.

Even though the data are only just emerging, the Berkeley campaigners were correct in at least one respect: Other cities and countries around the world have since joined the soda-tax party. It’s not quite a wave—for every new tax that has passed, at least one has been defeated or repealed, as in Chicago—but it’s clearly enough to worry the sugary beverage industry. In Part 1 of The Great Soda Wars, we looked at how much soda companies spend on campaigning and lobbying against regulation. This episode, we tell the story of two of their biggest wins: In Colombia, the activist Esperanza Cerón describes a no-holds-barred dirty-tricks campaign that defeated the country’s first soda tax, while Sara Bleich tells us about the industry’s successful effort to blackmail the state of California. These underhanded strategies seem all too familiar to Cristin Kearns, who, as the founder of the new UCSF Food Industry Documents Archive, has traced how Big Soda is simply following Big Tobacco’s playbook. Kearns foresees a long and bitter struggle to come.

In some ways, the intensity of the soda industry’s response offers its own testimony to the efficacy of soda taxes. But are they actually the best tool available to governments for reducing obesity and improving public health? To wrap up our special two-part series on the Great Soda Wars, we look at a couple of countries that have tried something different. Adam Briggs describes how the United Kingdom’s tiered soda tax was designed to encourage the industry to reformulate its products as opposed to reducing consumption—a strategy that, according to his model, seems likely to result in even bigger public-health benefits. And Barry Popkin tells us about Chile’s bold new experiment in food-and-drink labeling, and he shares the country’s preliminary results, which are, he says, “very big—much bigger than the tax.” Listen in now for the scoop—as well as why we in the United States may never be able to copy Chile’s ambitious approach to improving public health.

This post appears courtesy of Gastropod.