A tax on soda and other sugary drinks in Baltimore could help reduce diabetes and obesity in the city, while generating $25.6 million for health programs, researchers at Harvard's school of public health reported Wednesday.
The researchers, who looked at the impact of an excise tax on sugary beverages on 15 major cities, said all would see significant health and economic benefits.
The study was commissioned by Healthy Food America, an advocacy group that promotes such taxes.
"We are hoping that by showing the potential significance of this, more people will consider a tax in their communities," said Jim Krieger, executive director of Healthy Food America.
The study drew criticism from the beverage and retail industries, which have lobbied against such taxes.
Taxes on sugary drinks in Arkansas, West Virginia and elsewhere have had little impact on health, said Ellen Valentino, executive vice president of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association.
Arkansas and West Virginia have long-standing soda taxes, Valentino said, yet consistently rank among the states with the highest rates of obesity.
The beverage industry says it's trying to help reduce the negative health consequences of sugary beverages through a program called the Balance Calories Initiative, which aims to reduce beverage calories consumed per person nationally by 20 percent by 2025.
The country's leading beverage companies are posting the caloric content of sugary drinks where they are sold, and encouraging families to become more active, among other measures.
"While we may disagree with some in the public health community on taxes, we all share the same goal of improved public health," Valentino said.
Scientists at Harvard's T.H. Chan School of Public Health created a computer micro-simulation model for each city using data from the U.S. Census, the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and the Behavioral Risk Factor Surveillance System, which are Centers for Disease Control programs that assess the health of Americans.
They projected the results of a 1-cent-per-ounce excise tax in each state.
In Baltimore, the researchers concluded, such a tax would cause a 6 percent decline in diabetes, 4,950 fewer cases of obesity, and $31.6 million in savings in health care costs over a decade.
The idea of taxing sugary drinks is slowly gaining support in public opinion and among policymakers.
At least five U.S. cities — Philadelphia; Boulder, Colo.; San Francisco; Oakland, Calif.; and Albany, Calif. — and Cook County, Ill., adopted such taxes this year. Berkeley, Calif., became the first in 2014.
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The researchers project that the tax would raise prices on sugary drinks by 16.3 percent and cause soda consumption to drop by 20 percent.
"Once people start realizing they are spending so much on something that is not really good for them, people are shifting to other beverages," said lead researcher Steve Gortmaker.
The 15 cities the report analyzed were Baltimore; Charlotte, N.C.; Columbus, Ohio; Denver; Detroit; Indianapolis; Jacksonville, Fla.; Las Vegas; Los Angeles; Louisville, Ky.; Oklahoma City; Phoenix, Ariz.; San Diego; San Jose, Calif.; and Seattle.
Retailers say soda taxes could hurt business without improving health.
"The fact of the matter is that taxes on common grocery items don't make people healthier — just poorer," said Cailey Locklair Tolle, president of the Maryland Retailers Association. "Baltimore City needs to focus on attracting and retaining the current grocery stores, not on a policy that will chase retailer sales and jobs to surrounding jurisdictions."