Maddie worked as a travel guide in Argentina and a teacher at several educational nonprofits in San Francisco before joining Mother Jones. She’s also written for Outside, the Bay Citizen, and the Rumpus. She manages Mother Jones' Ben Bagdikian Fellowship Program.
Should sugary drinks be taxed to discourage people from overconsuming them? That's the question California voters in Richmond and El Monte are asking as they head to the polls today to decide on what could become the first penny-per-ounce taxes imposed on sugary beverages by cities in the US.
As I reported in June, some economists and public health researchers think that soda has enough price elasticity that its consumption rates would be shaken up by such measures. And growing research about diabetes and other health problems associated with the overconsumption of sugar—as discussed in the recent Mother Jones exposé "Big Sugar's Sweet Little Lies," for instance—has convinced some it may be time for the government to help regulate its consumption.
Just in time for today's election, a new study presented at a conference last week underscored the potentially positive role such excise taxes could play in problems plaguing minorities and low income communities. When researchers from the University of California—San Francisco and other universities projected the impact of a 20 percent drop in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) in California, they found that incidence of diabetes and heart disease would drop up to 5.6 percent and 1.2 percent, respectively.
But more importantly, the researchers found, incidence would decrease more significantly for certain groups who struggle with these issues the most: Mexican Americans, African Americans, and poor people. For these groups, a soda tax could decrease diabetes incidence by around 8 percent, and heart disease by around 2 percent. Total savings associated with avoiding these health issues in California? As much as $1 billion for diabetes, and an extra $130 million for heart disease.
Richmond's councilman Jeff Ritterman, who proposed the city's soda tax, or "Measure N," called these research findings "the smoking gun" in an email in early November, especially considering two-thirds of the city is black or Latino, and 32 percent of school kids are obese. The city also suffers from an 11 percent unemployment rate and high rates of poverty. As California Watch reported, the lead researcher of the study thinks the findings are significant because they show that some groups that in general drink more soda and are at a higher risk of diabetes may also benefit most from a tax on SSBs.
The taxes are by no means universally popular. Many in the Richmond area, including some black and Latino leaders, feel they were left out of the soda tax discussion and worry that a tax could slow sales at local small businesses. As the debate heated up over the summer and fall, these opponents were encouraged by the likes of, who else? Big Soda.
It's striking to realize that such a basic commodity—a substance we spoon into our coffee every day and use in almost everything we bake—may play a causative role in some of our deadliest diseases. Ever since the mid-1900s, when cereal makers realized that sugar boosts sales, America's food and beverage industries have been sweetening up their products. To buoy sugar's popularity circa World War II, producers launched what would become the Sugar Association Inc. (SAI), which later turned its attention to undermining research that suggests that it's more than cavities we need to worry about. As Gary Taubes and Cristin Kearns Couzens report in "Big Sugar's Sweet Little Lies," the SAI heavily funded sugar-friendly studies, ran misleading ads, and concocted a multiprong PR campaign to convince people that sugar was harmless and could even help us stay thin. Below are highlights from Big Sugar's longstanding attempt to win America's heart—and gut. (Be patient, as the timeline may take a few seconds to load.)
The scene preceeding The Lumineers' early afternoon set at San Francisco's Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival was just about as competitive as that portrayed in local news coverage of shoppers streaming into Walmart on Black Friday. Attendants barked at twenty-somethings ducking ropes in pursuit of a view, the grass section in front of the stage held about one fan per square foot, and the aisle up through the middle of the meadow transformed into a slow-moving mosh pit. It wasn't even 3 p.m. I slinked through the crowd and miraculously landed an edge of someone's tarp.
Jeremiah Fraites, the Denver-based folk band's drummer, remembers the afternoon in much the same way: "When we actually took the stage, every single vantage point, every spot where a human being could be, there was one—surrounding us." The entire Eucalyptus-shaded hill behind the stage was covered with humanity, as were the bushes flanking the sides of the small outdoor arena. I spotted two shirtless dudes draped over tree branches, ready to soak it in. "It made us feel pretty damn good about that being our first time at Hardly Strictly," Fraites told me a few days after the performance.
Some especially persistent voters rifle through Federal Election Commission filings in their spare time, poring over the latest data dumps and tracking outside money for insight into who's influencing the vote. Luckily for those of us with less time (or patience), tech-savvy politicos have figured out ways to filter through all that info and send some of the juicier bits straight to our favorite gadgets. Now you can peel back the facade of the mysterious backer of that one issues ad or view a whole compilation of polls at a moment's notice. These six apps can make it more enticing, not to mention a lot faster, to tap into what's going on behind the scenes of the horse race.
The Political Shazam
Nearly half of the more than $500 million in political ads out as of August 2012 were funded by outside groups—committees with ambiguous sounding names like Priorities USA Action or Americans for Prosperity. Ad Hawk, from Sunlight Labs, essentially runs a background check on the constant stream of political TV and radio ads. You just let the app listen to any ad as it plays, and in less than 30 seconds it will identify the group behind the ad and its bankrollers, and tell you how much of its cash has gone to supporting (or trashing) Democrats or Republicans. Ad Hawk is especially useful for learning more about the notoriously elusive super-PACs and 501(c)s—although when I asked Sunlight Labs' Director Tom Lee to name a notable recent ad, he pointed to Harold the Cat's gag run for a Virginia Senate seat. (Free, available for iOS and Android.)
Data from 2006 except for the US, which is from 2009. Source: Guttmacher Institute
It's easy to forget, amidst the current threats to restrict access to contraception, that for much of their lives, women still face the dilemma of which type of birth control to use. My friends and I are no different: More and more of us are now choosing intrauterine devices, those hormone-emitting or copper-wrapped plastic wonders that I hadn't paid much attention to until about a year or two ago, when I decided to switch to an IUD. After one albeit painful appointment to get the tiny instrument inserted, I no longer have to remember to take a pill or worry about needing to re-up my supply every month or before traveling; lucky for me, my insurance paid for the whole shebang. (My colleagues Kate Sheppard and Stephanie Mencimer both wrote about recently landing on this option, too.)
As it turns out, we're in the minority.Although long-lasting reversible contraceptive methods (LARCs) like IUDs are pretty popular in Europe (27 percent of Norwegian female contraception users have one) and China (41 percent!), only around 8.5 percent of women in the United States choose these as their birth control method, among the lowest of any developed country, according to a recent report by the Guttmacher Institute. But while at least half of my girlfriends now have IUDs, some of them have had to jump through hoops and even lie to convince their doctors to prescribe them one. Why has it been hard for young women in the United States to get their hands on this type of birth control?