Looking back on a milestone year in the movement to curb sugar

Wow. What a groundbreaking year for the movement to bring sugar back to healthy levels!  At the start of 2016, Berkeley CA was the only community in the United States with a tax on sugary drinks. We ended the year with six more, after every proposed tax went on to adoption, whether by ballot (four) or legislation (two).

Consumers also won a huge victory this year when the Food and Drug Administration finally approved a requirement that processed foods list grams of added sugars on nutrition labels, along with the percentage of the recommended daily maximum they represent.

It was the year when both news and social media caught a sugar buzz, as new awareness came to light about the health harms from sugar and industry efforts to pooh-pooh it. 

Sugar purveyors had their  “Big Tobacco moment,” as The New Yorker put it, when researchers unearthed long-buried documents that shed light on how, starting in the 1960s, the sugar industry co-opted nutrition science to shift blame for heart disease away from sugar to an exclusive focus on fat and cholesterol. The story got front-page coverage from coast to coast.

New guidelines from the American Heart Association released this year recommend children 2-18 should consume fewer than 6 teaspoons of added sugars per day. Children under two should not consume foods or beverages with added sugars, including sugary drinks. A study published in September showed warning labels on sugary drinks are a promising strategy to steer teenagers away from buying sugary drinks. (For a comprehensive look at strategies to curb sugar, see our sugar advocacy toolkit – also produced this year.)

But the runaway success story of the year goes to sugary drink taxes. First came the World Health Organization’s October call for governments to embrace them as a key strategy to “lower consumption and reduce obesity, type 2 diabetes and tooth decay.”

Then came the ballot-box sweep. Forced to fight on multiple fronts, Big Soda spent big bucks – over $40 million this year alone – but failed to stop any of the determined communities from passing taxes on sugary drinks. Meanwhile, pro-tax momentum was driven by positive impacts being reported from places like Berkeley and Mexico that already had a tax. In Berkeley, for example, one study found that low-income neighborhoods saw a 21 percent drop in consumption of soda and other sugary drinks in the months after the city introduced a tax.

The city-by-city approach to taxing sugary drinks has taken root with an enormous potential to impact the nation’s health for the better. Healthy Food America, launched early this year, was fortunate to be able to provide technical assistance to advocates and decision-makers in states and localities that are developing policies to curb excessive sugar. 

With each victory, HFA Executive Director Jim Krieger cheered for the local campaigns:

Philadelphia PA (June 16):  “The bold action by Philadelphia’s mayor and city council, in the face of $5 million worth of industry pressure, is a win not just for the health and well-being of Philadelphia kids but for communities across the country.”

San Francisco CA, Oakland CA, Albany CA, and Boulder CO (November 8): “Despite the billions spent on marketing and more than $30 million in deceitful campaign ads, voters saw the truth and sent a clear message that their families’ health comes first – thanks to an incredible, neighbor-to-neighbor grassroots campaign led by passionate and effective local advocates and support from Michael Bloomberg and Laura and John Arnold that helped level the playing field.  This vote is an historic turning point in the effort to bring sugar back to healthy levels.

Cook County IL (November 10): “Combined, the seven Bay Area, Philadelphia, Boulder, and Cook County taxes will bring in estimated revenues of over $342 million per year. They will also extend thousands of lives and cut diabetes and obesity rates while saving more than $360 million in healthcare costs over the next decade.

With momentum on the rise, we are sure to have even more to cheer in 2017. Let’s build on the success of our efforts in 2016 and make next year another milestone in addressing health inequities fueled by sugar.

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