Ensuring access to safe drinking water ought to come before a push for soda taxes

By The Times Editorial Board, originally posted on October 21, 2016


Tobacco executives must be thrilled that soda has become a prime target of public health activists. These days, it is seen as a slow-acting poison that contributes to type 2 diabetes, obesity and other health disorders. To some health officials, it is as threatening as cigarettes.

One result has been a surging interest in taxing it and other sugary beverages — a move designed to reduce demand just as tobacco taxes have deterred smoking. The nation passed its first soda tax in Berkeley two years ago. Philadelphia adopted one earlier this year, and now three California cities — Oakland, Albany and San Francisco — have a penny-per-ounce soda tax on the November ballot. And there are efforts to launch a statewide soda tax as well. Other states and cities are looking at soda taxes too.

A report released this month by the World Health Organization will help take the movement global. The WHO is urging governments around the world to consider adopting taxes of between 20% and 50% on sugar-sweetened beverages as well as incentives to spur the consumption of healthy food and drinks as a way to slow the spread of diabetes and obesity.

So is this a move in the right direction? There is certainly plenty to be concerned about when it comes to the heavy consumption of soda, sports drinks and other sugary beverages. Research increasingly shows a link between sugar consumption and metabolic diseases such as diabetes. But before they determine that such taxes are the appropriate policy prescription everywhere, public health advocates need to know that consumers have affordable, accessible, healthy alternatives to soda. Fruit juice, for instance, may not have added sugars, but it is packed with natural ones that have a similar effect on the body. Artificially sweetened soda may not always be a healthy substitute, or may not lead to weight loss. Drinking water is clearly the best answer, but that assumes everyone has access to clean water. They don’t.

According to the U.N., about 11% of the world’s population doesn’t have access to safe drinking water. And that’s not just people in faraway countries (or in Flint, Mich.). It includes people all over the United States. Here in California, 1 million people are exposed to unsafe drinking water in their homes, schools, parks and other public places, according to the Community Water Center. Does it make sense to slap on a tax before clean and safe alternatives to soda are available?

It’s also not clear yet how well these taxes work. Data out of Berkeley offer encouraging initial results, including a substantial drop in soda consumption among low-income residents. But there is also a suggestion that some people facing local soda taxes may simply drive across borders (from Berkeley, say, to neighboring Oakland or San Francisco) to buy cheaper beverages.

And so far there’s no way to know whether people who drink less soda compensate by increasing their consumption of Ho Hos or other sweets. That would be a problem because of evidence that added sugar in processed food is connected to diabetes and other health disorders.

Our diets are complicated, and the solutions to poor nutrition are equally so. But here is one thing we know for certain: It’s better to drink clean water every day than load up on sugary drinks. That’s where we should start.

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