Harvard researchers: Bay Area soda taxes would reduce diabetes, extend lives, and avert $55 million in health costs over 10 years

SEATTLE, WA – Three soda tax initiatives in the San Francisco Bay Area, if passed, would extend hundreds of lives and cut diabetes and obesity rates while saving nearly $55 million in healthcare costs over the next decade, researchers at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health have concluded.

To examine the potential health impact of the three proposed sugary drink taxes, researchers for Harvard’s CHOICES project localized a national, peer-reviewed computer model to project impacts in San Francisco, Oakland and Albany, CA.

The researchers project that the tax of one cent per ounce would lead many consumers to shift to water or other, less harmful drinks, so that soda consumption drops by nearly 20 percent. (Berkeley, where a tax has been in effect since early 2015, saw a 21 percent reduction among low-income communities.)

As a result of that shift, the incidence of diabetes would drop by an estimated 4 percent when the tax reaches full effect after a few years. The model also estimates nearly 6,000 fewer people would be burdened with obesity at the end of 2025 than without the tax. (For figures for each city, see the table below.)

Reducing the chronic diseases associated with excess sugar and weight gain in the three cities would cut healthcare costs by $54.9 million over 10 years in comparison to taking no action. The net savings in obesity-related healthcare would be about 30 times the cost to administer the tax, according to the model.

The three ballot initiatives combined would raise $22.2 million or more a year for programs to improve children’s health and prevent diseases associated with excess sugar consumption.

“When these three cities join Berkeley, whose soda tax already is having an impact, the Bay Area will lead the nation in saving lives by taking bold steps to prevent diabetes and other chronic disease,” said Dr. Jim Krieger, MD, MPH, executive director of Healthy Food America, a leading health policy think tank. “The Bay Area’s actions will especially help low-income people and communities of color, who are disproportionately targeted both by the marketing of sugary drinks and the diseases associated with drinking them regularly,” he added.

Communities across the country and world are adopting taxes on sugary drinks – as they have on tobacco – to raise revenue for social and health programs while at the same time discouraging overuse of products linked to obesity, diabetes and heart, liver and dental disease. The World Health Organization on Oct. 11 called for governments to tax sugary drinks as part of the global strategy to combat chronic disease and obesity.

 “Our analysis looks beyond revenue and finds that this excise tax on sugary drinks can generate significant prevention of new cases of obesity, diabetes, improved quality adjusted life years and healthcare cost savings,” said lead investigator of the CHOICES Project, Dr. Steven Gortmaker, who also serves as the director of the Harvard Prevention Research Center and a professor of the practice of health sociology at the Chan School of Public Health. “It is our intent that these findings serve as a source of research-based information surrounding potential health impacts of sugar-sweetened beverage taxes.”

Find the Harvard CHOICES brief for each city here: San Francisco, Oakland, Albany

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