Shoddy Science Shields Paternalistic Pop Tax

Published September 9, 2016

With no solid scientific evidence proving sugary drinks cause obesity more than any other sugary product, soda tax activists are desperate for proof their crusade will at once stop people from drinking killer Cokes and make them healthy. Lucky for the activists, in the world of nanny-state nutrition, it isn’t long before a dubious “study” is presented to align with their ideological vision of the future.

That’s why soda tax crusaders cheered the recent report, “Impact of the Berkeley Excise Tax on Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption.” The paper purports Berkeley’s one-penny-per-ounce tax caused a 21% decrease in soda consumption in 2015 (Berkeley passed the first soda tax in the country in 2014). Respondents claimed they cut back on regular soda by 26%, energy drinks by 29% and sports drinks by 36%.

The good news didn’t stop there. Apparently the tax also triggered a huge increase – a whopping 63% – in water consumption, according to the researchers, who gave away a free water bottle for participating (apparently, even in Berkeley, the environmental cost of bottled water is outweighed by the value of getting the answers you seek). In contrast, the study claimed sugary beverage consumption in non-tax cities such as San Francisco and Oakland increased by 4% (both are currently considering a soda tax).

Media outlets that support soda taxes, including the New York Times, dutifully reported the findings: “More evidence that soda taxes cut soda drinking.” The Los Angeles Times was even less skeptical, “Berkeley sees a big drop in soda consumption after penny-per-ounce soda tax,” and VOX bought it with a click-bait headline, “Berkeley put a tiny tax on soda. Consumption plummeted by 21 percent.” Just the kind of media-endorsed ammunition activists need to advance their cause.

Even the self-appointed ombudsman of food studies, N.Y.U.’s Dr. Marion Nestle, who routinely nit-picks any scientific finding coming from industry-funded research, blogged,”Yes! The Berkeley soda tax is doing what it is supposed to do.” Dr. Nestle pretends to scrutinize science when it undermines an interventionist agenda, but fails to apply the same critical eye when the science supports her agenda.  It doesn’t bother us so much that Dr. Nestle failed to disclose to her readers that the study may have been biased because it was funded by the soda-tax-supporting Global Obesity Prevention Center, it’s that she found it too taxing to apply even an ounce of the criticism she reserves for studies that come out the other way.

The headlines not only sounded too good to be true, but an actual reading, let alone analysis, of the study showed they were completely wrong. A more accurate headline would’ve read, “A few hundred people in low-income neighborhoods claimed they stopped drinking sugary beverages and drank more water to make themselves sound healthy.”

The study, published in the American Journal of Public Health, was the result of street interviews conducted by researchers from UC-Berkley’s School of Public Health. They asked notoriously unreliable dietary recall questions of residents in Berkeley, Oakland and San Francisco twice – once before the Berkeley tax passed, then a few months after the tax went into effect. The sampling “focused on low-income and minority populations, who are likely to consume SSBs and suffer related health consequences.” The first (leading) question to the Berkeley participants was “as a result of the soda tax or its campaigns, did you make any changes to what you drink?” If they replied yes, the surveyors asked about frequency and beverage size.

But there are several flaws in the report’s methodology. Intercept interview are inherently suspect and even the researchers admitted as much, acknowledging that it was “possible that factors unrelated to the taxes affected consumption”. Furthermore, the difference in the demographics between the Berkeley survey and the San Francisco/Oakland survey was stark. Fifty-three percent of the Berkeley respondents were women while 60% of the San Francisco/Oakland respondents were women. Fifty-one percent of Berkeley respondents were minority while 71% were minority in the SF/Oakland survey. And forty-five percent of Berkeley respondents had either a college or post-graduate degree while only 27% of San Francisco/Oakland participants did.

The lead author of the study, Jennifer Halbe, is an activist who favors the soda tax. Her report didn’t even feign objectivity, proclaiming the results “suggest that SSB taxes can significantly reduce SSB consumption.” Halbe told Vox “the Berkeley results are encouraging – that a sugary drink tax may be one of the many tools that can be used in public health to address obesity and diabetes.”

The study comes at a time when liberal food activists like former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg are pushing for more soda taxes. The American Heart Association even touted the bogus study, with AHA Chief Executive Nancy Brown commenting, “these results contribute to a growing evidence base in support for passing similar tax measures in cities and states across the United States.” In June, the Philadelphia City Council passed a 1.5-cent per ounce tax on soda and other municipalities are considering similar proposals.

The American Beverage Association pushed back on the study in an email to us: “The authors of this street survey acknowledge that it had a number of flaws and there is no indication that the tax had or will have a measurable impact on public health,” said spokeswoman Lauren Kane. The group doesn’t yet have sales data to measure the impact on purchasing because of the tax.

The soda tax is not just a tax, it’s a punishment inflicted by liberal elites who want to control what they think we should eat and drink. To them, sugary beverages are déclassé, a staple of the lower or middle-class they purport to want to protect but really look down upon. After all, why not tax Clif bars or organic yogurt, both of which are also loaded with sugar. The key difference is that the former are consumed by a greater proportion of the poor, who have less economic, political and perceived moral clout, and the latter are favorites of elite foodies.

Contrived studies supporting sin taxes, like the latest out of Berkeley, are merely window dressing to hide this particularly detestable display of paternalism.