Should soda with non-caloric sweeteners be taxed too? In Philadelphia and Cook County, that’s the case

By Adi Menayang contact

- Last updated on GMT

Philadelphia and Cook County include sugar alternatives in soda tax
Proponents of sin taxes say that putting a levy on sugar-sweetened drinks may play a pivotal role in fighting obesity, diabetes, and cardiovascular disease. But two of the eight US locations that have passed such a tax—Cook County (Chicago) and Philadelphia —passed ordinances that tax beverages with non-caloric sweeteners as well.

“They’re not cutting surgically,”​ said Dan Fabricant, president of the trade association Natural Products Association (NPA). “Really, if the goal is public health to reduce obesity, to get people healthier, why would you reduce the amount of non-caloric, sugar-alternative sweeteners?”

In Philadelphia’s case, it is not just about the inclusion of sugar substitutes in the tax—Fabricant took issue with the city government’s classification of stevia as an artificial sweetener. “Calling stevia artificial is as wrong as calling lime juice artificial – it’s like an alternative fact,” ​he said.

“Even if they’re just local municipality laws saying stevia is a synthetic sweetener, and then we have products out there labelling stevia as an ‘all-natural’ sweetener, some lawyer somewhere is going to sue, and say ‘wait a second this is synthetic and you guys are claiming to be all-natural.’”

CSPI: Why are diet sodas being taxed?

The decision to tax beverages with non-nutritive sweeteners - which contribute no calories - has also dismayed consumer health advocacy groups.

“We think the smart public policy is to exclude the diet sodas from these taxes,” ​Jim O’Hara, director of health promotion policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) told FoodNavigator-USA

“The taxes are aimed at really addressing the issues of health risks associated with sugary drinks, which include obesity, diabetes tooth decay, heart disease,” ​he added.

AHA, AMA take a more neutral stance

Other health organizations have a more neutral stance, such as The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. “The Academy’s position is that no single food or beverage leads to overweight or obesity when consumed in moderate amounts and within the context of the total diet,” ​a spokesperson for the organization told FoodNavigator-USA.

Additionally, the American Heart Association, which backed San Francisco’s and Oakland’s soda taxes (none of which included non-caloric sweeteners), said“we don’t know for sure if using​ [non-nutritive sweeteners] in food and drinks makes people actually eat or drink fewer calories every day.”

Why sugar substitutes are in there

Offices of Philadelphia’s mayor as well as the Cook County President have not responded to requests for comment, but the ordinance passed by Cook County explained why non-caloric sweeteners were included.

The ordinance​ cited four studies that suggest sugar-substitutes may pose health risks such as kidney decline in women, greater risk of metabolic syndrome, and cardiovascular diseases, and that people are more likely to become overweight compared to non-diet soda drinkers. It does not, however, cite the specific studies nor the type of sugar alternative analysed.

So far, Cook County’s soda tax, originally scheduled to go into effect July 1, has been delayed​ due to legal challenges.

As for Philadelphia’s case, the CSPI's O’Hara said that he ‘appreciates’ the inclusion of sugar alternative sweetened drinks to the ordinance because of different political dynamics in the city. “Members of the council thought that it would address charges that the sugary drink tax was regressive by extending the tax to diet sodas,” ​he said. 

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