Do soda taxes reduce childhood obesity?

Obesity has become a global public health problem. Children who are obese are more likely to suffer from serious health problems – both in childhood and later in life – ranging from high blood pressure to type 2 diabetes or depression. It also creates a large burden on healthcare systems.

In the US, around 1 in 5 children and adolescents have obesity according to the CDC. Obesity is more common in Hispanic children and non-Hispanic Black children. It is also linked to family income: obesity prevalence increases and family income decreases.

Sugar taxes (which generally apply specifically to beverages) are often justified by governments and public health officials by citing high levels of childhood obesity – and the ability of sugar taxes to cut sugary drink consumption among children. That’s certainly been the case in the UK, in Seattle, and many others. But what does the data show?

New data from Seattle

Published this week, a new study from the University of Washington has tackled the question directly: looking at whether the BMI of children in Seattle changed after the implementation of the Seattle Sweetened Beverage Tax in 2018. 

The study assessed 6,313 children living in Seattle or in a nearby comparison area not covered by a sugar tax. They found a ‘statistically significant reduction’ in BMI in children​ in Seattle.

Seattle’s sugar tax covers soda, energy drinks, sports drinks, sweetened ice teas and coffees, and juices or waters that contain added caloric sweeteners (100% juice, low calorie and diet drinks are exempt). The sweetened beverage tax is set at 1.75c per ounce.