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Soda Tax Advocates Just Got a New Weapon in Their Battle Against Sugar

April 5, 2018, 11:47 AM UTC

Advocates for soda taxes have struggled in recent years to win over constituents whole-heartedly, but new research may give their cause a big boost.

According to a new study published in The Lancet medical journal on Wednesday, taxes on items like soda and even alcohol and tobacco can actually help modify consumer choices and lead them to healthier lifestyles.

Larry Summers, an economist and former secretary of the Treasury, explained to Bloomberg that these taxes are “probably the single-most important measure that can be taken to reduce death and suffering.” Commentary by Summers accompanied The Lancet report.

The study found that contrary to popular perception, such taxes do not actually disproportionately harm the poor. In fact, it is typically wealthier households who spend heavily on soda and alcohol, and poorer ones tend to respond more quickly to fluctuations in prices to such goods. Nevertheless, the study does note that the taxes are most effective if the revenue from them is re-injected to fund programs for the poor.

American cities like Berkeley, Boulder, Seattle, and Philadelphia have already put in place some version of the soda tax, which is aimed at reducing obesity. Internationally, the U.K. is due to impose a levy on sugary drinks starting this Friday, and in Mexico, the soda tax has already caused a 17% decrease in purchases from lower-income groups, reports The Lancet.

But the legislation got a sharp rebuke in Chicago last year when lawmakers in Cook County repealed what had been the U.S.’s largest soda tax. The move came amid public pressure over implementation screw-ups and amid a multi-million-dollar media battle between the soda industry and public health organizations. The repeal followed a similar legislative defeat in Santa Fe, New Mexico earlier in the year and was seen at the time as a loss of momentum for soda tax advocates.