Issue 554December 2016

Soda Taxes Reach a Tipping Point

By Eli Zigas
Urbanist Article January 10, 2017

What Happened:

Voters approved soda taxes everywhere they appeared on the ballot this November. Two local legislatures also passed soda taxes this year.

What It Means:

The year 2016 will likely be marked as the tipping point for soda taxes. After the Berkeley tax passed in 2014, the question was whether any city would follow in its footsteps. At the end of 2016, the answer is a clear “yes.” The new question now is: Which cities or states are next?

Until last June, Berkeley was the only city in the nation with a soda tax – despite many previous attempts to pass taxes elsewhere in the country. In that month, Philadelphia became the second. In November, San Francisco, Oakland, and Albany, CA, as well as Boulder, CO, and Cook County, IL (home of Chicago), all followed their lead.

     The passage of these taxes is a good development for public health. Sugary drinks are the single largest contributor of added sugar in the American diet and are linked to historic increases in obesity, diabetes and other diet-related disease. While reducing soda consumption won’t solve these issues, it will help. Studies from Mexico (which implemented a national soda tax in 2014) and Berkeley show that after the taxes are passed, prices on sugary drinks go up and consumption goes down.

     That so many jurisdictions passed taxes on sugar sweetened beverages this year is even more remarkable because the soda industry fought them tooth and nail. In San Francisco, the American Beverage Association spent more than $20 million encouraging voters to oppose the tax [1]. That works out to $40 per registered voter. Without even counting the $10 million spent in support of the measure (most of which came from former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg), it was the costliest local ballot measure in the city’s history. A similar story played out in Boulder, where the ballot measure fight also had the highest expenditures in that city’s history and where proponents were outspent two-to-one. In Oakland, proponents and opponents spent historic – though roughly equal – amounts, with each side spending nearly $7 million [2]. Despite this unprecedented opposition spending, the measures passed with 62 percent support in San Francisco, 61 percent in Oakland and 54 percent in Boulder. These healthy margins of victory indicate that public opinion is shifting.



[1] Campaign finance data from San Francisco Ethics Commission Campaign Finance Dashboards: http://

[2] Oakland data from Open Disclosure California:


About the Authors: 

Eli Zigas is SPUR’s Food and Agriculture Policy Director.

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