The Midterms: Big Soda Succeeds and Fails in Stopping Soda Taxes

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A price increase in sugary drink is proven to reduce consumption, according to a Salud America! Research Review.

Sugary drink taxes have bubbled up in cities across the country, like Philadelphia’s tax that has reduced consumption and Berkeley’s tax that has generated money for health programs.

But before the U.S. midterm election Nov. 6, 2018, Big Soda giants like Coke spent millions on deceptive marketing campaigns to fight sugary drink tax measures, according to reports by NPR, the New York Times, and Vox.

Experts say Big Soda is taking cues from the tobacco industry’s playbook by supporting ballot measures and state laws that block governments from passing new taxes on food and drinks as well as cultivating relationships with doctors and scientists.

What happened to the newest measures on sugary drink taxes?

Big Soda Election Win

Voters approved Initiative 1634 in Washington State.

Initiative 1634 makes it impossible for counties and cities to pass new soda taxes.

To promote Initiative 1634, the soda industry pushed a campaign with this slogan: “Say Yes! To Affordable Groceries.” They billed it as “opposing new taxes on everyday grocery items, such as meats, dairy and beverages.”

This tactic fooled people, and deceptively tricked them into voting for the measure, Laura MacCleery, the policy director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, told Vox.

“They’re calling it a grocery tax measure when nobody in the public thinks of soda when they think of groceries,” MacCleery said. “The ads have pictures of broccoli. But this was never about a broccoli tax. No one wants to tax broccoli.”

Many did not realize they were voting against soda taxes, Jim Krieger, leader of Healthy Food America and a professor at the University of Washington, told the New York Times.

“No one is even talking about taxing food,” Krieger said. “This is simply the soda industry trying to protect its profits at the expense of public health and local democracy.”

Still, the existing sugary drink tax in Seattle will continue, despite the change.

Big Soda Election Loss

A similar measure to block sugary drink taxes was on the ballot in Oregon. It did not pass.

What made a difference between Oregon and Washington?

Money.

In Washington, beverage companies spent $20.3 billion supporting the ban on taxes, according to CSPI. In contrast, public health campaigns spent a mere $100,000 to stop the measure.

In Oregon, Big Soda spent $5.7 million supporting the ban on taxes. Public health advocates spent $3.4 million.

This shows public health advocacy makes a huge difference.

“There was money behind the opposition campaign in the state where it was voted down. In the state where the soda industry won, there wasn’t any funding to clarify to the public what was at stake,” MacCleery said.

The difference in outcomes in the two states “is a difference where advocacy groups had the resources to stand up and explain to voters what the measure was about,” she said.

Can your town start a measure to increase the price of sugary drinks, or an advocacy campaign?

Send us know your thoughts and ideas!

Editor’s note: Main photo via Scott Ball / Rivard Report.

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