A tax on soda would carry the greatest health benefits for black and Latino Californians, who face the highest risks of diabetes and heart disease, according to recent research findings.
The study found that if a penny-per-ounce tax was applied to soda, cuts in consumption would result in an 8 percent decline in diabetes cases among blacks and Latinos. The statewide reduction in new diabetes cases is projected at 3 to 5.6 percent, according to researchers from UC San Francisco, Columbia University and Oregon State University, who released their findings at last week's American Public Health Association annual meeting in San Francisco.
The study was unveiled as a sugar-sweetened beverage tax faces votes in El Monte, in Los Angeles County, and Richmond, in the Bay Area. A statewide excise tax was proposed but died in the California Legislature in 2010.
Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, said he has visited Richmond to urge support for the measure. He said he heard residents speak of loved ones who’ve been affected by diabetes complications – such as limb amputations and blindness – during a recent town hall meeting at a Richmond church.
Goldstein said residents of both cities, though, face the pressure of nearly $3 million in spending by the beverage industry, which opposes the measures.
The residents "are using the power of democracy to say we want to change this,” Goldstein said. “But the beverage industry is using the enormous power of its pocketbook to try to crush it.”
Karen Hanretty, a spokeswoman for the American Beverage Association, said the Richmond and El Monte taxes, if passed, would take a heavy toll on small-business owners who would see a new license fee that they could pass on to customers' grocery bills.
And, she said, “there’s no real life evidence that would suggest that taxing soft drinks would do anything to improve health.”
The populations of Richmond and El Monte are predominantly comprised of the groups that the recent study shows would benefit most from a soda tax. In Richmond, 63.5 percent of residents are black or Latino, according to city figures. About 70 percent of El Monte residents are Latino, according to U.S. Census data.
Dr. Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, the study’s lead author, said researchers took a conservative stance, assuming that a penny-per-ounce tax would cut soda consumption by 10 to 20 percent.
Even so, she said the decline in consumption would eliminate 5 in 10,000 new diabetes cases for African Americans and 4 in 10,000 for Mexican-Americans. The decline for those groups is higher than the projected statewide reduction, which is 1 in 10,000, she said.
She said the study, which has been submitted for publication, was among the first to show that some groups that tend to drink more soda and face higher diabetes risks also stand to benefit most from a soda tax.
“It’s pretty clear that what’s necessary is some mechanism to increase price (enough) to curb consumption,” said Bibbins-Domingo, who is a physician and epidemiologist.
The UCSF team’s latest research builds on a study published in the journal Health Affairs in January. That study predicted that nationwide, a soda tax could reduce sugar-sweetened beverage consumption by 15 percent. And even if Americans replace 40 percent of the cut calories with juice or milk, it would lead to a weight loss of nearly 1 pound per year.
Researchers conclude that within 10 years, the lost weight would translate to 876,000 fewer obese Americans in the 25-to-64 age range. Over a decade, the change is projected to prevent 30,000 heart attacks, 8,000 strokes and 26,000 premature deaths, the study found. The changes would lead to $17 billion in health cost savings, the study says.
Hanretty, the beverage association spokeswoman, disputed the findings: “I am very confident that a1-pound weight loss per year will have no effect on the health of Americans.”
At the conclusion of last week's meeting where the recent findings were presented, a council of 200 public health workers, including doctors and epidemiologists, passed a resolution supporting local, state and federal soda taxes, noting the toll of the nation's obesity epidemic.
View this story on California Watch
This story was produced by California Watch, a part of the nonprofit Center for Investigative Reporting. Learn more at www.californiawatch.org.