Campus researchers reveal positive health effects of Berkeley soda tax

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Campus researchers revealed a 21 percent decline in sugar-sweetened beverage consumption in Berkeley’s low-income neighborhoods following the nation’s first-ever soda tax in a study released Tuesday.

Published in the American Journal of Public Health, the findings showed that San Francisco and Oakland experienced a slight increase in sugary beverage consumption in contrast to Berkeley. The study attributes this disparity to Measure D, a city tax that levied a penny-per-ounce charge on distributors of sweetened beverages.

“Every year the food industry spends billions of dollars advertising (sugary beverages), and in public health we don’t have that kind of money to get people to be healthier,” said study co-author Jennifer Falbe.  “(The tax) is one tool that could level the playing field in terms of health.”

Study co-author Kristine Madsen noted that soda advertisements predominantly target low-income communities, and that non-nutritional food sources — including fast food restaurants and corner stores — were more widely available in these neighborhoods.

As part of the study, researchers surveyed more than 2,500 residents of low-income commercial areas in the three cities, according to Madsen. Those surveyed — both before the Berkeley tax and one year later — were also asked their education level as indicators of socioeconomic status.

According to Falbe, sugary beverages constitute the “leading source of added sugar in the American diet” and have been linked to diabetes, heart disease and obesity in past research. She added that the beverages offered essentially no nutritional value to compensate for the adverse health effects.

Some have disputed the research findings, however.

Joe Arellano, a spokesman for the No Oakland Grocery Tax Campaign, claimed the study was “fundamentally flawed” because researchers incentivized study participants to take the survey using free water bottles and did not take into account whether each participant lived in Berkeley.

Arellano said the soda tax forces small grocers to raise the price of all merchandise in their stores to compensate for the additional charge levied on soft drinks. He added that the financial burden of the tax ultimately rested on struggling customers who then had to accommodate higher overall grocery bills.

“What we’re seeing here is a focus on going after grocers, small businesses and the folks who can’t afford to be paying for their food,” said Arellano.

Kimberly Nielsen is the lead research and ideas reporter. Contact her at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @kimberlyniel_dc.