When Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter gave the keynote address at the National Soda Summit this summer, he seemed like a natural choice to rail against the public health risks of sugar-sweetened drinks. Sodas have been the bête noire in his fight against Philadelphia’s obesity problem. He has tried and failed twice to pass a soda tax, which would add two cents per ounce to the cost of sweetened beverages. With funding from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, his administration has launched a campaign to reduce soda consumption and encourage healthier behaviors. In a city where 63 percent of residents are overweight or obese, Mayor Nutter has made it clear: Big Soda is enemy number one.
Until the soda summit, however, the mayor had been tight-lipped on the idea of regulating soda consumption directly. But his speech in Washington raised a few eyebrows here at home. In discussing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s so-called soda ban, which, if passed as expected next month, will prohibit the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces, Mayor Nutter praised Mayor Bloomberg’s plan.
“It’s a bold strategy and is worth evaluating and considering,” he said. “Studies have shown that people eat what is served to them. Perhaps, if offered smaller portions people would consume less. The problem, which Mayor Bloomberg has clearly noted, is that ridiculously large portions have become the norm–20- or 24-ounce sugary drinks are common.”
The mayor must be hinting that a similar ban might be on the horizon for Philadelphia, right? Not so fast. His spokesman, Mark McDonald, says no. Despite the mayor’s comments at the National Soda Summit, McDonald claims the mayor has no interest in pursuing a soda ban in his own city. Ditto a reprise of his soda tax proposal.
“While the administration pursued it on two occasions, and while the mayor thinks it’s a reasonable tax that could support the cost of increased work in the area of fighting obesity, there are no current plans to seek introduction of legislation in Council to achieve that goal,” McDonald said.
That doesn’t mean the soda war in Philadelphia is over—far from it. The fight continues in other cities, the results of which could spark future action here. Two cities in California, Richmond and El Monte, will put soda tax proposals on the ballot this November, letting voters decide directly. Politicians nationwide will watch the vote closely to see whether a ballot measure is something other cities could replicate.
“Politically, a ballot measure is a little easier,” said George Hacker, senior policy advisor at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which hosted the National Soda Summit.
Big soda has deep pockets and they are willing to spend in an effort to fight what they see as an unfair crusade against them.
Easier–but not easy. Even in a small city like Richmond, the American Beverage Association has spent roughly $150,000 to fight the proposed legislation, which would charge businesses a penny for every ounce of soda they sell in the city. In 2010, the industry spent $10 million to prevent a soda tax from becoming part of the Affordable Care Act.
Big soda has deep pockets and they are willing to spend in an effort to fight what they see as an unfair crusade against them. “Singling out any one food or beverage as a unique cause of obesity isn’t going to lead to a meaningful solution,” said Karen Hanretty, vice president of public affairs for the American Beverage Association.
Voters aren’t sold either. Although numerous state and local legislatures have drafted soda tax bills, only two have passed–one in Washington State and one in Maine–and both of those measures were eventually overturned by voters.
Another reason soda taxes and bans have failed to gain traction is because their efficacy is far from certain. In the case of New York’s soda ban, the rule applies to restaurants and movie theaters, but not grocery and convenience stores. That means McDonald’s wouldn’t be allowed to sell a 20-ounce soda, but the 7-11 next door could.
“Even in the targeted outlets, people could always buy multiple sodas,” said Jonathan Klick, law professor at the University of Pennsylvania. “Probably, on net, the regulation will lead to a small reduction in soda consumption, but there will be no real effect on obesity.”
That’s because soda is not solely responsible for making people fat. Several studies by Yale University professor Jason Fletcher suggest that taxing soda does reduce soda consumption, but such policies have no effect on body weight. Another recent study published in the International Journal of Behavior Nutrition and Physical Activity delivered similar results: When schools got rid of unhealthy foods and drinks, children made healthier food choices, but obesity rates didn’t change and were equivalent to schools without such policies.
“If you look at the trajectory of body weight and compare it to the increase in soda consumption over the past few decades, there is no way soda consumption could possibly explain more than a trivial share of the upward trend in BMI,” Klick says.
A recent Gallup poll showed that nearly half of Americans drink at least one glass of soda per day, and of those who do drink soda, the average is 2.6 glasses a day.
Certainly, people consume more soda today than they did 50 years ago, and soda sizes have ballooned. A recent Gallup poll showed that nearly half of Americans drink at least one glass of soda per day, and of those who do drink soda, the average is 2.6 glasses a day. But the poll also showed frequent soda drinkers were no heavier than non-soda drinkers. That’s probably because Americans eat and drink more of everything today, not just soda, due in part to the increased availability of cheap food.
Still, many cities and states see regulating or taxing sugary sodas as an important weapon in their fight against obesity, as well as an easy source of revenue. More than 30 states have removed sodas from their sales tax exemption. In Boston, legislators have eliminated sugary drinks in vending machines in public buildings. San Francisco lawmakers have banned soda machines from all city property. Currently, 39 states have laws restricting the sale of sodas in school vending machines, with those in Kentucky and California among the strictest.
Here in Philadelphia, the Department of Public Health has taken a different tack. Two years ago the department launched the Get Healthy Philly initiative, which, among other things, has worked with corner stores throughout the city to improve access to healthy foods. Promoting healthier beverages is one part of the initiative, but the campaign also encourages those in their corner store network to sell lean meats, low-fat dairy, fresh fruits, and vegetables.
“We’re trying to improve access to healthy foods in general,” said Jennifer Aquilante, Nutrition Coordinator for Get Well Philly. “We’re trying to take a holistic approach.”
Nevertheless, many health advocates maintain sodas are a major part of the problem, and both they and their opponents are drawing from the tobacco playbook. The ABA has spent millions lobbying against soda taxes and regulations, and the high-priced lobbying effort continues. On the other side, a coalition of soda tax supporters recently sent a letter to Health and Human Services Secretary Kathleen Sebelius, calling on the Surgeon General to issue a report on the health effects of soda and other sugary drinks. The letter directly cites the 1964 Surgeon General’s report on tobacco as a model. Philadelphia’s Department of Public Health is among the supporters.
Whether taxing or regulating soda is good public policy is still up for debate, and nothing will likely happen on a national scale until after the November election, if at all. But as cities like New York, Richmond, and El Monte chip away at the soda issue, they could lay the groundwork for other cities that, like Philadelphia, might be interested in getting similar laws on the books.
“As you see sugary drinks drying up,” CSPI’s Hacker said, “it becomes easier to take on the tougher issues.”