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#PoliticalSpeak: will political action improve population health?

Public Health vs. Sugar Lobby. Who will win in a world that is anti-science and fuelled by alternative facts? #PoliticalSpeak #SugarTax 

A targeted sugar tax works. The study below in California shows that one year following implementation of the the US's first large sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) tax, prices of SSBs increased in many, but not all, settings, but more importantly SSB sales declined, and sales of untaxed beverages (especially water) rose. 

What is now needed is to assess whether this SSB tax has an impact on the health of the population; i.e. does shifting people away from SSBs to 'healthy beverages' result in loss of weight and improvement in population health, i.e. less obesity and a lower incidence of the metabolic syndrome and diabetes. If yes, a sugar tax will ultimately reduce cardiovascular mortality and potentially all cause dementia later in life. 

I suspect the US Corn Refiners Association and other bodies with vested interest in sugar will attempt to discredit these results. The question is which lobby group will win? In a world that is becoming increasingly anti-science, fuelled by alternative facts and an assault on the established and credible media it is difficult to predict. 

Silver et al. Changes in prices, sales, consumer spending, and beverage consumption one year after a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in Berkeley, California, US: A before-and-after study. PLoS Med. 2017 Apr 18;14(4):e1002283.

BACKGROUND: Taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) meant to improve health and raise revenue are being adopted, yet evaluation is scarce. This study examines the association of the first penny per ounce SSB excise tax in the United States, in Berkeley, California, with beverage prices, sales, store revenue/consumer spending, and usual beverage intake.

METHODS AND FINDINGS: Methods included comparison of pre-taxation (before 1 January 2015) and first-year post-taxation (1 March 2015-29 February 2016) measures of (1) beverage prices at 26 Berkeley stores; (2) point-of-sale scanner data on 15.5 million checkouts for beverage prices, sales, and store revenue for two supermarket chains covering three Berkeley and six control non-Berkeley large supermarkets in adjacent cities; and (3) a representative telephone survey (17.4% cooperation rate) of 957 adult Berkeley residents. Key hypotheses were that (1) the tax would be passed through to the prices of taxed beverages among the chain stores in which Berkeley implemented the tax in 2015; (2) sales of taxed beverages would decline, and sales of untaxed beverages would rise, in Berkeley stores more than in comparison non-Berkeley stores; (3) consumer spending per transaction (checkout episode) would not increase in Berkeley stores; and (4) self-reported consumption of taxed beverages would decline. Main outcomes and measures included changes in inflation-adjusted prices (cents/ounce), beverage sales (ounces), consumers' spending measured as store revenue (inflation-adjusted dollars per transaction) in two large chains, and usual beverage intake (grams/day and kilocalories/day). Tax pass-through (changes in the price after imposition of the tax) for SSBs varied in degree and timing by store type and beverage type. Pass-through was complete in large chain supermarkets (+1.07¢/oz, p = 0.001) and small chain supermarkets and chain gas stations (1.31¢/oz, p = 0.004), partial in pharmacies (+0.45¢/oz, p = 0.03), and negative in independent corner stores and independent gas stations (-0.64¢/oz, p = 0.004). Sales-unweighted mean price change from scanner data was +0.67¢/oz (p = 0.00) (sales-weighted, +0.65¢/oz, p = 0.003), with +1.09¢/oz (p < 0.001) for sodas and energy drinks, but a lower change in other categories. Post-tax year 1 scanner data SSB sales (ounces/transaction) in Berkeley stores declined 9.6% (p < 0.001) compared to estimates if the tax were not in place, but rose 6.9% (p < 0.001) for non-Berkeley stores. Sales of untaxed beverages in Berkeley stores rose by 3.5% versus 0.5% (both p < 0.001) for non-Berkeley stores. Overall beverage sales also rose across stores. In Berkeley, sales of water rose by 15.6% (p < 0.001) (exceeding the decline in SSB sales in ounces); untaxed fruit, vegetable, and tea drinks, by 4.37% (p < 0.001); and plain milk, by 0.63% (p = 0.01). Scanner data mean store revenue/consumer spending (dollars per transaction) fell 18¢ less in Berkeley (-$0.36, p < 0.001) than in comparison stores (-$0.54, p < 0.001). Baseline and post-tax Berkeley SSB sales and usual dietary intake were markedly low compared to national levels (at baseline, National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey SSB intake nationally was 131 kcal/d and in Berkeley was 45 kcal/d). Reductions in self-reported mean daily SSB intake in grams (-19.8%, p = 0.49) and in mean per capita SSB caloric intake (-13.3%, p = 0.56) from baseline to post-tax were not statistically significant. Limitations of the study include inability to establish causal links due to observational design, and the absence of health outcomes. Analysis of consumption was limited by the small effect size in relation to high standard error and Berkeley's low baseline consumption.
CONCLUSIONS: One year following implementation of the nation's first large SSB tax, prices of SSBs increased in many, but not all, settings, SSB sales declined, and sales of untaxed beverages (especially water) and overall study beverages rose in Berkeley; overall consumerspending per transaction in the stores studied did not rise. Price increases for SSBs in two distinct data sources, their timing, and the patterns of change in taxed and untaxed beverage sales suggest that the observed changes may be attributable to the tax. Post-tax self-reported SSB intake did not change significantly compared to baseline. Significant declines in SSB sales, even in this relatively affluent community, accompanied by revenue used for prevention suggest promise for this policy. Evaluation of taxation in jurisdictions with more typical SSB consumption, with controls, is needed to assess broader dietary and potential health impacts.


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