by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Soft drinks

Feb 22 2017

Taking sodas out of SNAP: the debate

I’m out of the country for a few weeks (México) and missed the House hearing on whether SNAP-eligible food items should continue to include sugary beverages.

From what I gather, most witnesses opposed any change in the program, with one from the American Enterprise Institute the lone holdout.

As I discussed in the chapter on SNAP in Soda PoliticsI continue to think that taking sugar-sweetened beverages out of the package is a no brainer.

  • They are sugars and water and have no nutritional value.
  • Tons of research links their consumption to a higher risk for obesity and its consequences.
  • SNAP recipients spend a lot of taxpayer money on them.
  • SNAP recipients may well have worse diets and higher proportions of chronic disease than equally poor people who do not get SNAP benefits.
  • Surveys say that SNAP recipients would not mind this change.
  • SNAP recipients can always buy sodas with their own cash.

I recognize that not everyone sees things this way.  I suspect that people opposed to this idea are worried that any change to SNAP will leave it vulnerable to cuts, and they could well be right.

Here are their arguments:

Politico provides some sound bites on the topic:

  • “Food surveillance violates the basic principles of this great country.” — Rep. David Scott (D-Ga.)
  • “What can we do to incentivize rather than punish?” — Rep. Rodney Davis (R-Ill.)
  • “If you want to do a pilot program, I’m happy to co-sponsor one at the White House. I’m worried about our president’s eating habits.” — Rep. Jim McGovern (D-Ma.)

The state of Maine, however, has just renewed its request to USDA to remove sugar-sweetened beverages and candy from SNAP-eligible items.

Maine believes the purchase of sugar sweetened beverages and candy is detrimental to the health of the SNAP population, and is antithetical to the purpose of the SNAP program.

SNAP is supposed to be a nutrition program, no?  Nutrition is about a lot more than calories (and this from someone who wrote a book about calories).

Feb 17 2017

Weekend resources: a roundup

Jan 31 2017

Are we drinking less soda? The industry says yes.

The CDC has just released two reports on consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, one for adults and one for children and adolescents.

For adults ages 20 and over, the CDC says:

  • Half drink at least one sugar-sweetened beverage on any given day.
  • These contribute 145 calories per day or about 6% of total calories.
  • The amount consumed declines with age.

For kids ages 2 to 19, the CDC says:

  • More than 60% consume at least one a day.
  • Sugary drinks provide an average of 143 calories a day or 7% of total calories.
  • Roughly 10% of kids drink 3 or more per day.
  • Kids ages 12 to 19 drink the most.

The Washington Post tracked the trends.  The decline in consumption of sugary drinks has slowed down from the peak in about 2000.

Is this trend real?

These figures are based on self-reported intake (or parents’ reports of their kids’ intake) in the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES).

I much prefer industry data on sales, which don’t have to deal with the messy business of self-reports.

Fortune Magazine, for example, says soda sales have declined for the last 11 years.

The downward trend is good for public health.  May it continue!

Jan 11 2017

What SNAP recipients buy at one big retail grocery

Advocates have been pressing USDA for years to (1) get data on what SNAP recipients buy with their benefits, and (2) permit pilot studies of what happens to purchases of soft drinks if you exclude them from the benefit package.

In 2012, I did a post on the 2012 SNAP to Health report.  Its recommendations:

  1.  Protect SNAP benefits.
  2.  Collect data

Lots of people have been trying to get USDA to produce data.  Anahad O’Connor, the author of the New York Times account, filed a Freedom of Information request with USDA.  In response, USDA sent him a report it had commissioned from IMPAQ, a “beltway bandit” consulting firm.  His story is here (I’m quoted).

Now we have a partial answer.  IMPAQ analyzed data from one large, unnamed retailer (could it be Walmart?).

Here’s USDA’s summary of the study (and here’s the complete study).

The USDA says the study shows that SNAP recipients buy pretty much the same amounts of what everyone else buys.

Summary category data show that both SNAP and non-SNAP households focused their spending in a relatively small number of similar food item categories, reflecting similar food choices. The top five summary categories totaled about half of the expenditures for SNAP households and non-SNAP households (50 versus 47 percent). Commodity-level data (in the full report) show that both SNAP and non-SNAP households made choices that may not be fully consistent with the Dietary Guidelines for Americans.

My reading of the report suggests that in this study, SNAP recipients spent more of a combination of their SNAP benefits and their own private money on:

  • Sugar-sweetened beverages
  • Hamburger
  • Frozen meals
  • Salty snacks
  • Lunch meats
  • Flavored milk
  • Kids cereals
  • Frozen French fries
  • Convenience foods in general
  • Infant formula

The report does not discuss why these differences might exist but it would be interesting to find out.

If sugar-sweetened beverages really comprise 9.5% of purchases, that comes to $6 billion a year.

That’s why taking them off the list of eligible foods is worth a try.

Recent SNAP news

The USDA is sponsoring a pilot project to allow SNAP participants to buy foods online from certain retailers, including Amazon in three states, Fresh Direct in New York, and various grocery chains in other states.

The idea is to make it easier for SNAP participants to get access to healthier foods.

I hope the USDA is keeping score on what gets bought online, and whether foods cost more.  The benefits are not allowed to be used for delivery costs.

Dec 14 2016

The pros and cons of taxing foods based on their sugar content

The Urban Institute has just published The Pros and Cons of Taxing Sweetened Beverages Based on Sugar Content.

The report is funded by the American Heart Association and others.  The AHA issued a press release.

The sections of the report state its conclusions:

  • Taxing Sugar Content Is the Least Costly Way to Reduce Sugar Consumption
  • Taxing Based on Sugar Content Is Feasible at the National Level
  • Taxing Based on Sugar Content Raises More Issues at the State and Local Level but Is Generally Feasible As Well

The report concludes:

We conclude that taxing based on the amount of added sugar a drink contains, either by taxing sugar content directly or by levying higher volume taxes on drinks with more sugar, is feasible in many jurisdictions and reduces sugar consumption more effectively than comparable taxes on drink volume.

Broad-based volume or sales taxes on all soft drinks, however, raise revenue more efficiently.

Federal, state, and local policymakers thus face trade-offs between using sweetened-beverage taxes to raise revenue and to discourage consumption of added sugars.

Keep this in mind when trying to do this in your community.

Nov 9 2016

Savor the moment while it lasts: soda taxes pass!

The results, now almost final, look like this:

Soda tax votes in California:

  • San Francisco, CA, Measure V, 1 cent/oz: 62%
  • Oakland, CA, Measure HH, 1 cent/oz:       61%
  • Albany, CA, Measure 01, 1 cent/oz:          71%

And

capture

Recall what this cost, and then some:

Next?  Fingers crossed.

But at least this.

Oct 12 2016

WHO takes action against sugary drinks, urges taxes

The World Health Organization took two actions yesterday to encourage people to cut down on consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.

It issued a report urging national governments to consider taxes: “Taxes on sugary drinks: Why do it?  

Governments can take a number of actions to improve availability and access to healthy foods and have a positive influence on the food people choose to consume. A major action for comprehensive programmes aimed at reducing consumption of sugars is taxation of sugary drinks. Just as taxing tobacco helps to reduce tobacco use, taxing sugary drinks can help reduce consumption of sugars.

It defines sugar drinks as products that contain added sugar, corn or fruit-juice concentrates and include carbonates, fruit drinks, sports drinks, energy and vitamin water drinks, sweetened iced tea, and lemonade.

It also took immediate action to remove sugary drinks from its Geneva headquarters

The agency explained this action:

The move signifies how seriously WHO is taking its leadership role in implementing policies to improve public health…By implementing this policy WHO is setting a positive example for Member States, other organizations and visitors…WHO vending machines, restaurants and coffee shops will continue to sell water, fizzy water, and unflavoured milks with different fat contents, teas and coffees, and beverages with non-sugar sweeteners (such as diet and zero calorie drinks). Sugar packets for use with tea and coffee will continue to be served.

These actions are getting plenty of attention.

The Guardian pointed out that:

Battle lines are being drawn in Colombia, where a consumer movement is pressing the case for a sugary drinks tax and the industry is fighting back…Last month, the Asociación Educar Consumidores – the consumer organisation which, like its Mexican equivalent, has backing from Bloomberg Philanthropies in the US – produced an educational video to be broadcast on television, warning that drinking too many sugary drinks can lead to diabetes and other diseases.

But after a complaint from Postobón, the Colombian beverage giant, the government’s regulatory agency charged with consumer protection banned any showing of the video on TV, saying it was inaccurate and could confuse the public.

Michael Bloomberg, now a global ambassador for WHO issued a statement.

A growing number of cities and countries – including Mexico – are showing that taxes on sugary drinks are effective at driving down consumption. The World Health Organization report released today can help these effective policies spread to more places around the world, and that will help save many lives.

The International Council of Beverages Associations (ICBA) issued a statement:

ICBA is disappointed that this technical committee’s report advocates the discriminatory taxation solely of certain beverages as a ‘solution’ to the very real and complex challenge of obesity. We strongly disagree with the committee’s recommendation to tax beverages, as it is an unproven idea that has not been shown to improve public health based on global experiences to date.

Healthy Food America says the soda industry has spent $30 million to fight soda taxes, just this year.

WHO has just given its blessing to soda taxes.  Will countries respond?  How much more is the soda industry willing to spend to stop taxes?

Stay tuned.

Other accounts:

Aug 29 2016

Yes! The Berkeley soda tax is doing what it is supposed to

Jennifer Falbe and other investigators from Kristin Madson’s group at UC Berkeley have just produced an analysis of the effects of the Berkeley soda tax on consumption patterns.

They surveyed people in low-income communities before and after the tax went into effect.  The result: an overall 21% decline in reported soda consumption in low-income Berkeley neighborhoods versus a 4% increase in equivalent neighborhoods in Oakland and San Francisco.

The Los Angeles Times breaks out these figures: 

In Oakland and San Francisco, which have not yet passed a tax, sales of regular sodas went up by 10%.

Other findings, as reported by Healthy Food America:

  • During one of the hottest summers on record, Berkeley residents reported drinking 63 percent more bottled water, while comparison cities saw increases of just 19 percent.
  • Only 2 percent of those surveyed reported crossing city lines to avoid the tax.
  • The biggest drops came in consumption of soda (26%) and sports drinks (36%).

Agricultural economist Parke Wilde at Tufts views this study as empirical evidence for the benefits of taxes.  He writes on his US Food Policy blog that it’s time for his ag econ colleagues to take the benefits of taxes seriously:

There is a long tradition in my profession of doubting the potential impact of such taxes…Oklahoma State University economist Jayson Lusk, who also is president of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA), has blogged several times about soda taxes, agreeing with most of the Tamar Haspel column  in the Washington Post, and concluding stridently: “I’m sorry, but if my choice is between nothing and a policy that is paternalistic, regressive, will create economic distortions and deadweight loss, and is unlikely to have any significant effects on public health, I choose nothing” (emphasis added).

Wilde points out that Lusk has now modified those comments in a blog post.

All that said, I’m more than willing to accept the finding that the Berkeley city soda tax caused soda consumption to fall. The much more difficult question is: are Berkeley residents better off?

Yes, they are.

The Berkeley study is good news and a cheery start to the week.  Have a good one.

Addition

Politico adds up the “piles of cash” being spent on the soda tax votes in San Francisco, Oakland, and Alameda and analyzes the soda industry’s framing of the tax as a “grocery tax.”

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