Opinion: The tax on sugary beverages has been instrumental in educating the community about beverage alternatives

The soda tax has generated $5 million. It has been invested into programs serving those traditionally targeted by soda beverage companies.

This is the second part of a two-part op-ed, following. Read part one by Jennifer Falbe. 

In 2014, the city of Berkeley became the first in the nation to pass a sugary drink tax. In subsequent years, neighboring Albany, Oakland and San Francisco, as well as Philadelphia, Seattle, and Boulder joined with similar excise taxes.

These jurisdictions tax sugary drinks in an effort to reduce the risk of disease. California, like the rest of the country, is facing a public health crisis with high rates of diabetes and cardiovascular disease. Sugary drink consumption is the most important risk factor that we can change. Sugary drinks are the leading source of added sugars in the American diet; drinking just 1 to 2 sugary drinks a day increases the risk of diabetes by 26% and total mortality by 14%.

One important success of sugary drink taxes is that tax revenues are being invested in communities, especially low-income neighborhoods and communities of color that are disproportionately targeted by beverage companies with marketing, cheaper pricing, and availability of sugary drinks.

The tax revenues are being invested in health because that’s what Berkeley residents want. In the four years since the sugary drink tax passed, the Berkeley City Council created the Healthy Berkeley Program and has invested more than $5 million in new programs including nutrition education for Head Start programs, oral health for low-income patients and community education to shift the beverage culture among high school students, families of color and throughout Berkeley. The Healthy Berkeley Program has also sustained the nationally renowned garden and nutrition program in our public schools, which had lost its original funding.

Community programs funded by the soda tax in Berkeley are changing norms around sugary drink consumption with a focus on groups targeted by the beverage companies. Here are two examples:

Focus: African Americans in South and West Berkeley

Healthy Black Families has been engaging African American residents of Berkeley with its Thirsty for Change! program that has trained more than 30 youth water ambassadors and has reached almost 1,500 Berkeley residents through classes on preparing healthy foods on a budget. Evaluations show the program is working with participants increasingly choosing water over sugary drinks.

By partnering with the Center for Food, Faith and Justice, Healthy Black Families also works with black churches to educate people about sugary drinks and health, support community gardening and establish healthy beverage policies.

Focus: Berkeley Teens

In 2014, 59% of California’s adolescents drank at least one sugary beverage per day. One noteworthy trend is that as soda consumption declines, more children are drinking sports and energy drinks, which are also high in added sugar. The Ecology Center’s Youth Environmental Academy leads an intensive health education program to address all sugary drink consumption at Berkeley High School. The program has improved access to clean drinking water on campus; provided free water bottles to all 9th graders; organized interactive spoken word assemblies and in-class workshops to develop students’ awareness of how sugary drink marketing targets teens.

The next step: make it easier to choose healthy drinks by changing marketing and retail environments.

The Healthy Berkeley program is working to improve Berkeley’s beverage environment through initiatives focused on healthy check-out lanes in stores, encouraging organizations to adopt healthy beverage policies, and increasing public access to drinking water.

Similar measures are being discussed at the state level, where legislators introduced several bills this spring to address the diabetes crisis and the related $37 billion in annual medical costs in California. The proposed policies include an excise tax on sugary drinks, a ban on jumbo-sized drinks, the removal of sugary drinks from check-out aisles, and restrictions on sugary drink promotions. Also, a proposed health warning label would help people understand the health dangers of sugary drinks at the time of purchase. If successful, these new policies would counter the targeted marketing by beverage companies, especially to children, and make it easier for all Californians to drink healthier beverages and reduce their risk of diabetes and heart disease.

All California children deserve the benefits observed in Berkeley. A statewide sugary drink tax will contribute to the prevention of diabetes. Most important, revenues can be directed towards youth and communities most affected by chronic disease, thus helping to reduce health disparities in the state.

Holly Scheider, MPH, public health advocate, and leader in Berkeley, Albany and Oakland sugary drink tax and policy campaigns. Dr. Vicki Alexander, Healthy Black Families, Inc. President Board of Directors and former Health Officer, City of Berkeley Martin Bourque, Executive Director, Ecology Center