How to fight back against Big Soda's anti-sugar tax tactics

The soda industry won big in Chicago last week when county commissioners voted to scrap the tax of 1 US cent per ounce on sugary drinks that had been in place for just two months.

This is a stark turn for the effort to tax these drinks, which has been making headway as voters and city councils in at least a half-dozen other cities in the United States, including San Francisco and Philadelphia, in recent years approved measures in favour of soda levies.

The sudden about-face in Chicago, after a battle in which both sides spent millions on TV and radio advertisements, offers an important lesson for advocates of these taxes, ourselves included, as the industry we call Big Soda takes aim at other communities: We can't forget the grassroots.

While we are longtime healthy-food advocates, we have only recently awakened to the alarm bell of sugary drinks. For years, these drinks were flagged for "empty calories" that lead to weight gain. Today, the public health community understands that consuming sugar - particularly in liquid form - increases risks of serious health conditions, such as heart disease, Type 2 diabetes and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, not to mention tooth decay. A 2010 study found that consuming just one to two sugary drinks a day increases your risk of developing diabetes by 26 per cent.

While sugar is everywhere - in cookies and crackers, breads and pasta sauce - the single largest source in the American diet is sugary drinks. A 20-ounce Coca-Cola contains 65g of added sugar, significantly exceeding the American Heart Association's daily maximum recommendation for adult women, 25g, and adult men, 36g.

It's not hyperbolic to claim that sugary drinks pose a major public health threat. Nationally, we spent US$245 billion (S$332 billion) on medical costs for diabetes in 2012. By 2030 we could be spending as much as US$818 billion on the direct medical costs of heart disease. Both illnesses are associated with the consumption of sugary drinks.

Fortunately, there are effective tools to address this crisis. Taxes on sugary drinks are one. As a peer-reviewed study published this year found, since the tax went into effect in Berkeley, California, in March 2015, purchases of healthier drinks have gone up and sales of soda have gone down, all without consumer grocery bills increasing or the local food sector losing money. The tax raised about US$1.5 million last year for nutrition and health programmes in a city of 113,000 people.

Since Berkeley passed its tax, seven municipalities have followed suit, and many others, even some states, are interested in doing the same.

This has Big Soda scared because these taxes - with the awareness they create about the health effects of sugar and the consumption they reduce - threaten the industry's bottom line.

How scared?

Leaked internal Coca-Cola e-mails last year show a a "coordinated war" against policies like these, says public health advocate Kyle Pfister, who has studied these documents. This war, waged by the American Beverage Association and sugary drink makers like Coca-Cola, includes a slew of duplicitous tactics, like funding research to give a hue of legitimacy to their anti-tax claims, pursuing social media influencers, lobbying at every level of government and targeting key journalists for persuasion. These time-tested tactics have been used by the tobacco industry in its fight against cigarette taxes.

The industry also starts and funds faux grassroots organisations. In another e-mail, a trade group representative boasted about the impact of Philadelphians Against the Grocery Tax, an industry-funded group, which deployed an aggressive media strategy that achieved a "significant shift in public attitudes away from initial majority support for the discriminatory tax" in Philadelphia. In the end, the industry lost there.

In Cook County, which includes Chicago, the industry's "Can the Tax" campaign spent millions on local TV ads and pressured commissioners, in particular critiquing the use of the soda tax revenue to help cover budget deficits. (In other cities, the money has been directed to public health concerns, among other things.)

When Mr Jesus Garcia, a Cook County commissioner, signalled he would vote to repeal the tax, he acknowledged that the beverage industry used its financial power to shape public opinion before supporters of the tax were able to craft their own message for a public debate.

There is an important lesson here: When efforts for sugary-drinks taxes are driven and supported by community coalitions that build public awareness early on, they're better able to withstand industry attacks. Strong coalitions are vital both to adopt new taxes and to ensure they remain to curb consumption and generate funds for public health programmes.

In Berkeley, the industry waged a US$2 million anti-tax campaign. We credit the success of the tax effort there to a broad-based community coalition - a united front of the local NAACP, Latinos Unidos, teachers' unions and many more groups. This compact was strong enough to withstand the industry's onslaught. We won decisively, with 76 per cent of the vote. Community engagement is key.

While the Cook County decision is a setback, it's also a clear reminder of what it will take to win. There's no substitute for good, old-fashioned community building. We know we will be outspent. Let's not be outnumbered.


•The writers run Real Food Media.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 17, 2017, with the headline 'How to fight back against Big Soda's anti-sugar tax tactics'. Print Edition | Subscribe