Dirty Tricks and Data: The Great Soda Wars, Part 2

Over the past five years, more than forty 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 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 U.S. 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 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 is 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 It's not quite a wave—for every new tax that has passed, there's been at least one defeated or repealed, as in Chicago—but it's clearly enough to worry the sugary beverage industry.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, 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 to familiar to Cristin Kearns, who, as 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. In the U.K., Adam Briggs describes how the country'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 in Chile, Barry Popkin tells us about a 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 U.S. may never be able to copy Chile's ambitious approach to improving public health.

Episode Notes

Barry Popkin

Barry Popkin studies nutrition at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's Gillings School of Global Public Health, and he consults to governments around the world on food policies meant to improve public health.

Kelly Brownell

Kelly Brownell heads the World Food Policy Center at the Duke University Sanford School of Public Policy. While at the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, he developed a nifty calculator to calculate how much revenue a soda tax could raise in your city or state: you can play with it online here.

Sara Bleich

Sara Bleich is a professor of public health policy at Harvard University, and her work focuses on providing evidence to support policies meant to prevent obesity and diet-related diseases, particularly among vulnerable populations.

Adam Briggs

Adam Briggs is a medical doctor and public health researcher at the University of Oxford. With colleagues, he modeled the possible impact of the U.K.'s tiered soda tax in this paper, and is currently analyzing its preliminary results.

Esperanza Cerón

Esperanza Cerón is a medical doctor and director of Educar Consumidores, a Colombian nonprofit group focused on human and environmental health issues. You can read The New York Times' report on the soda industry's campaign of intimidation against her here.

Gabriella Gómez-Mont

Gabriella Gómez-Mont is the founder of Laboratorio para la Ciudad, the experimental arm and creative think tank of the Mexico City government.

Cristin Kearns and the USCF Food Industry Documents archive

Cristin Kearns is a professor of dentistry and public health policy at the University of California at San Francisco. She created the new UCSF Food Industry Documents archive as a portal to millions of internal documents that researchers can use to trace how food and beverage companies influence public policy. You can read about how the archive came to be founded in this Civil Eats article, learn more about the stories its contents have already revealed in our special supporters newsletter, and search it to see how industry has shaped public health policy in your city or state here.

Steven Gortmaker

Steven Gortmaker is professor of health sociology at Harvard University, where he directs the Harvard Prevention Research Center on Nutrition and Physical Activity. His research is focused on the cost-effectiveness of interventions promoting physical activity and nutrition, aimed at preventing childhood obesity.


Click here for a transcript of the show. Please note that the transcript is provided as a courtesy and may contain errors