In 2017, the city of Philadelphia introduced a tax on sugary drinks, such as soda. Has this made any difference to people’s attitudes toward these beverages?
In January 2017, the city of Philadelphia implemented a beverage tax that targets all sweetened drinks distributed on the local market.
Still, researchers from Drexel University in Philadelphia, PA, say that — in theory — such an intervention could also have positive implications for public health.
In their new study paper, which now appears in the, the investigators write that “[h]igh consumption of [sugar-sweetened beverages] is associated with increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and other health problems.”
According to the authors, people may choose to drink sugary beverages because they cost less than many healthful drinks and are readily available on the market.
So, in the new study, they wanted to see whether or not increasing taxation for sugary beverages would put people off buying them.
The researchers analyzed changes in sugary beverage consumption in Philadelphia during the first year of the soda tax.
They also compared those trends with sugary drink consumption habits in cities from Philadelphia’s neighboring ares, including Trenton and Camden, NJ, and Wilmington, DE.
The researchers included the data of 515 participants in their final data. The participants reported how often they drank soda, fruit drinks, energy drinks, and bottled water, and how much of each of these beverages they consumed over a period of 30 days.
They offered this information at the start of the study (referring to their beverage consumption habits between December 2016 and January 2017) and again at the end (reporting on their habits from December 2017 to February 2018).
In total, only 25% of the participants reported drinking sugary beverages every day.
The researchers found that within the first year of the soda tax, 39% of participants from Philadelphia and 34% of participants from neighboring areas said that they had consumed fewer sugar-sweetened beverages.
Although this proportion may seem significant, for Philadelphians, it actually only translates to consuming three fewer drinks per month. This is not at all a drastic change from the trends at baseline.
Considering these findings, study co-author Amy Auchincloss, Ph.D., notes that although “[w]e have ample evidence that sugary beverages are connected to type 2 diabetes, obesity, cardiovascular disease, and other health issues, […] we’re seeing that raising the price of sugary beverages may not impact consumers who don’t drink a lot of soda.”
The study authors suggest that this may be because the soda tax simply is not high enough to make a difference. Alternatively, it could be because Philadelphians can easily purchase sugary drinks from retailers outside of their city, which the tax does not affect.
“The availability of untaxed sugary beverages outside of Philadelphia, the still relatively lower price of these drinks compared [with more healthful] ones, and marketing and advertising may explain the low effect of the tax.”
– Lead study author Yichen Zhong
Still, the study authors note that in the grand scheme of things, even this limited new tax may benefit public health — albeit not in the way they were anticipating.
“Although this law was not passed for health reasons, the tax has the potential to generate long-term health benefits for many Philadelphians because revenue from the tax is being directed toward expanding access to quality early childhood education for children in lower income [households] — and education has a positive effect on many health outcomes,” explains senior study author Brent Langellier, Ph.D.