Sugary Drinks Have No Place in a Sustainable & Resilient Food System

An op-ed piece on sugary drinks & a potential tax on them, in Hawaiʻi, from a food systems perspective.

Top view of sugary beverage cans

By: Sydney Millerd, Hawaiʻi Food+ Policy Intern

Back in intermediate school, I remember, every morning, my classmates would walk to the nearby gas station to buy their breakfast of a can of Monster. Sugary drinks like this were very popular among my classmates and they would even collect the cans’ colorful tabs on their lanyards and wear them proudly like a medal they had won. Even at that young age, I realized that the Monster-a-day diet was not going to keep the doctor away, but rather possibly make doctor visits more routine for my friends. Now, as a college student studying Sustainable Community Food Systems, not only do I further understand the harms of sugary beverages on human health but also the negative food system externalities that accompany them.

A sustainable and resilient food system supports the health of its community members by providing nutritious foods and drinks that enable them to lead healthy lives. Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) do not support this type of food system. It is well known that the overconsumption of SSBs contributes to diet-related illnesses such as obesity and type-2 diabetes. Not only is this unfortunate for the individual who gets the diet-related illness, but it can eventually become a cost passed on to taxpayers and government as high public healthcare costs stem from growing numbers of individuals sick with diet-related illnesses.

Minorities are targeted by sugary beverage advertising and tend to suffer the hardest under the burden of diet-related illnesses. The Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islander community is 80% more likely to be obese and 2.5 times more likely to die from diabetes than non-Hispanic whites. Keiki have also been found to be the target of sugary beverage ads. According to the CDC Youth Risk Behavior Survey, in 2017, 63% of Hawaiʻi students reported drinking soda in the past seven days, and of these students, Pacific Islander and Native Hawaiian students were the most prevalent ethnic groups to consume soda. A sustainable and resilient food system should protect and support the most vulnerable of communities; however, our current food system is clearly not doing so.

The negative impacts of sugary drinks discussed above can be seen close to home; however, have you ever thought about the costs that occur to produce these beverages? For instance, big soda companies often produce their products in developing countries. As a result, local aquifers and surface waters are depleted, and the water from the area is bottled and shipped away. This leads to disruption in local water cycles. Additionally, when these water sources are depleted, farmers in the area no longer have water to irrigate their crops and are at risk of losing their livelihoods. These hidden costs showcase additional faults in the greater food system and are relatively more difficult to address, but if we reduce our consumption of SSBs, we are reducing support to the industry that is creating these externalities.

During the 2021 legislative session, bills relating to an SSB fee were introduced (HB330, HB994, SB541, and SB1148). The bills would have imposed a two-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks at the distributor level. SSB producers would either have to compensate for this fee by lowering their prices, or accept that some consumers might change their purchasing behaviors and pick healthier beverages instead. Revenues from the fee would be deposited into the Healthy Ohana Special Fund to fund initiatives that aim to prevent obesity and chronic disease in the islands. These bills had the potential to contribute to efforts that address the health, social, and environmental issues that stem from SSBs, but, unfortunately, they were not even scheduled for hearings and, therefore, died.

Not only did the bills have the potential to help address the issues that stem from SSBs, but they also had the potential to positively contribute towards bettering other aspects of our food system. There were conversations that revenues generated from the fee could go towards supporting the SNAP Double-Bucks Program and farm-to-school initiatives. Other possible initiatives could be implemented in Hawaiʻi using inspiration from other areas that have an SSB fee. For examples, in Berkeley, California, SSB fee revenues funded a cooking and gardening program, and in Seattle, Washington, SSB fee revenues provided $5 million worth of grocery vouchers to over 6,000 households that faced food insecurity amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

An SSB fee has the potential to not only better the health of Hawaiʻi’s people, but also reduce our contributions towards environmental and social injustice, along with supporting a needed transition to a more sustainable and resilient food system here in the islands… perhaps next legislative session.

About the Author

Sydney Millerd is a senior at the University of Hawaiʻi — West Oʻahu where she is pursuing a Bachelor of Applied Science degree with a concentration in Sustainable Community Food Systems and a Bachelor of Arts in Social Sciences degree with a concentration in Political Science. With this, she hopes to go into a sustainable initiative and policy work to help Hawaiʻi and the world become a more sustainable and resilient place. Within the field of sustainability, she particularly holds an interest in food security and health. As a Hawaiʻi Food+ Policy intern, she is working to keep the community informed on food and agriculture policy in the islands.

A group of college students & recent graduates who are striving to keep you updated on food & agriculture policy in Hawaiʻi. Learn more: foodpluspolicy.com