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California's soda tax proposal spells opportunity for alternative sweeteners

California's soda tax proposal spells opportunity for alternative sweeteners

Is a tax on sugared beverages really "the single most effective measure to reverse the obesity epidemic?" Even if consumers would not benefit, certain ingredient companies surely would. 

We may be reaching a tipping point in the sugared beverage world that is beginning to look a lot like the tobacco wars of decades past. From New York City's efforts to ban large sizes of soda to municipalities in California instituting a soda tax, the effort to curb childhood obesity by targeting sugar water is gaining favor.

With crisis comes opportunity, and what is bad for the sugar lobby and the Corn Refiners Association may be a boon for suppliers of stevia, monk fruit and polyols.

Certainly the trend away from carbonated sugar-water is continuing apace. Lightly sweetened non-carbonated drink sales are up.

New York Times Magazine's food columnist Mark Bittman summarized the state of affair—which can be moved with certain ballot items on next month’s ballots—in a blog post last week. Salient points include:

Even if the beverage industry were composed of the nicest people in the world, it will not stop marketing to children unless it’s made to. Indeed, these marketing efforts are within the rules of the game, however deadly they may be. The outcome of those rules and the marketing they allow is pandemic obesity and all the costs associated with it, which have been detailed enough elsewhere to pass over here.

Will California's soda tax pass?

The goal of right-thinking people, then, is to change the rules and somehow make it more difficult for the marketers to do their job. This can be done by legislation, executive mandate or—in some places such as California—referendum.

Legislation to impose a significant tax on soda, a penny or even two per ounce, has failed everywhere, though it’s come close, especially in Philadelphia. After failing to pass legislation for a soda tax, Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed (and will evidently institute, five months from now) a ban on large sizes of soda in many New York City places.

Now the California cities of Richmond and El Monte have put the soda tax on the Nov. 6 ballot.

The tax has been endorsed by the United Nations, the American Heart Association, the American Medical Association, The New England Journal of Medicine, the Institute of Medicine and many others, and which the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention commissioner, Thomas Frieden, has called "the single most effective measure to reverse the obesity epidemic."

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