Will NYU study point the way to eventual restoration of Israel's soft drink tax?

Analysis shows the rise and fall of angry, fearful tweets with the passage and implementation of the Philadelphia beverage tax.

 Assorted sodas in glasses.  (photo credit: WALLPAPER FLARE)
Assorted sodas in glasses.
(photo credit: WALLPAPER FLARE)

A few months ago, the Netanyahu government canceled the tax on sugary soft drinks under pressure from haredi (ultra-Orthodox) MKs whose communities buy a lot for Shabbat and holidays, even though they can cause obesity, type-2 diabetes, and maladies. Except for public health experts, the general Israeli public who still drink large amounts of colas and other soft drinks, didn’t make much of a fuss.

What is the chance that the decision will be rolled back? 

Tweets about the 2017 Philadelphia beverage tax showed high levels of anger and fear before the tax was replaced by more favorable sentiments years later, according to an analysis by researchers. The researchers used the controversial tax on non-alcoholic sweetened beverages to track the social media platform's potential for measuring public reaction to health policies.

Shahmir Ali, a postdoctoral researcher from the National University of Singapore who completed the research while a doctoral student at New York University’s School of Global Public Health and colleagues found that Twitter posts about the tax shifted from anger to acceptance, reflecting factors such as media coverage, lawsuits challenging it, and the eventual health and economic benefits of the funds. 

Published in the Journal of Public Health Management & Practice under the title “Leveraging Multiyear, Geospatial Social Media Data for Health Policy Evaluations: Lessons From the Philadelphia Beverage Tax,” the findings illustrate how Twitter can be used to influence public opinion when a policy is introduced, and later, to research the public’s reaction to it. “This study provides policymakers a blueprint to conduct similar cost and time-efficient yet dynamic and multifaceted health policy evaluations,” Ali suggested. 

 Sodas in a store refrigerator. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)
Sodas in a store refrigerator. (credit: Wikimedia Commons)

Health policy effects

“There is a crucial need to more dynamically understand how everyday people experience a health policy,” said Ali, the lead author. “Analyzing social media data can be a uniquely cost-effective, and comprehensive way to glean some of these insights that have been made easier with the 2021 roll-out of the Twitter program for academics to analyze large amounts of historic Twitter data.”

For their analysis, the authors used the Academic Twitter Application Programming Interface to evaluate 45,891 tweets related to the Philadelphia beverage tax from 2016, before the tax, until 2019, two years after its implementation. Using tools that analyze text for positive, negative, and neutral sentiment, they examined tweets related to the tax and categorized the sentiment of the tweets, their timing, and the location of the tweeter in and around the Philadelphia area.

Initially, lawsuits from businesses to prevent the tax and related media coverage led to negative sentiment, but tweets indicating positive sentiments increased in 2018 when the Pennsylvania Supreme Court upheld the tax and published analyses revealing how the tax successfully helped reduce sales of sugary beverages. The authors also found a higher concentration of negative tweets in the suburbs near Philadelphia than in the New Jersey and Delaware suburbs – likely driven by Pennsylvanians being more affected by the tax.

“For policymakers, insights from this Twitter data can help pinpoint who important conversation-makers are on policies like the Philadelphia beverage tax and how to prepare for, or leverage, their influence on these policy discussions,” said Ali. “However, we must remember that not everyone is on social media, and sentiment analysis through emotional lexicons comes with its own limitations. Thus, findings from this type of Twitter data can set the foundation for more in-depth public opinion evaluations.”

“There have been many sweetened beverage taxes implemented in the country and around the globe. Collecting sentiments around each tax can inform local contextual differences. This information analyzed together with the tax’s impact on consumer purchase or consumption behavior can shed light on the how and why a tax succeeded or even failed to do what it intended to do,” added nutrition and food studies Prof. Angela Trude, a study co-author from NYU. 

The authors say that despite challenges in using social media for research purposes, free access to Twitter API was valuable to students and scientists interested in online behaviors. “There are some signs that Twitter may end access to its free data, and if it does, the transparent and equal access to the data will end too, and we will have to be creative in ways to leverage social media data for the public good,” Trude concluded.