After years of losses, health advocates who want big taxes on sugar-laden sodas are suddenly starting to win over voters. And now they’re bringing their fight to the Portland area.
The big soda makers are not an easy target. They are some of the most ubiquitous and ambitious ad makers on TV.
Coca-Cola’s ad urging the the “world to sing in perfect harmony” is one of the most famous commercials ever. Even Pepsi’s failed attempt to tie its product to the social justice movement generated huge headlines this month when the company apologized and pulled the ad.
For years, beverage companies’ dogged image-making and deep pockets helped protect them as critics took aim at sugary beverages blamed for chronic ailments like heart disease and diabetes.
Carter Headrick, who works on obesity initiatives for the American Heart Association, describes a long list of failures when health groups first tried to sell voters and politicians on higher taxes aimed at prodding people to cut back on soda.
“The industry was able to overwhelm the messaging and it was really hard to break through with health messages and talk about the rationale for raising the tax,” Headrick said.
But now that’s changing.
In 2014, Berkeley, California, voters passed a soda tax, followed by Oakland, San Francisco, Philadelphia, and Boulder, Colorado, last year.
So what’s happened?
In part, advocates smartly targeted urban electorates increasingly open to new research about the dangers of heavy sugar use.
Just as importantly, they also now have their own deep pockets — thanks largely to billionaire Michael Bloomberg. As New York City mayor, Bloomberg famously tried in 2012 to limit soda drink sizes, calling it the “single biggest step I think any city has ever taken to curb obesity.”
Critics accused Bloomberg of creating a nanny state and the courts struck down his plan. Now out of office, he’s using his fortune to pursue a long list of health initiatives, including special taxes on soda.
“There’s more and more a level playing field for these kinds of campaigns,” said Jim O’Hara, director of health promotion for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. That group is a long-time critic of the food and beverage industry.
In recent years, Bloomberg has spent more than $18 million on initiatives around the country to help pay for TV ads that portray the fizzy beverages in a sinister light.
“The first thing I tell my patients is to stop drinking soda,” said one person who looks like a health care provider in an ad for the Oakland initiative. Another person in the ad says, “Big soda is telling big lies.”
Last week, advocates announced they will begin collecting signatures to put a tax on the Multnomah County ballot in November. Christina Bodamer, Oregon government director for the Heart Association, described Multnomah County as a “progressive health-forward” area that is “a prime candidate for something like this.”
The initiative calls for a 1.5-cent tax per ounce on sugary drinks. That’s 18 cents on a typical 12-ounce can. Or about a buck on those 2-liter bottles. The measure would cover beverages with more than 6 grams of added sugar (the equivalent of about 1.5 teaspoons of sugar). That includes many things that people might not think about such as many brands of energy drinks, like Red Bull or Monster.
Diet sodas, fruit juices and products listing milk as the first ingredient are among those exempted. The measure would raise an estimated $28 million a year, mostly to help low-income children.
Supporters say it makes sense to home in on sugary beverages, which the U.S. Department of Agriculture says accounts for 39 percent of the added sugar in the American diet.
“We know that Americans right now on average are consuming 22 teaspoons of sugar each day,” said Headrick, “which is triple the recommended limit for women and double the recommended limit for men and the number one source for that added sugar is coming from sugary drinks.”
The American Beverage Association criticizes efforts to target sodas.
“When you look at other markets that have passed similar taxes, they haven’t shown a decrease in terms of people becoming thinner,” said Jack Evans, a Seattle-area consultant helping the association assemble a business coalition against the Multnomah County measure. “What they have shown is people becoming poorer as a result of these taxes,” Evans said.
Evans argued that these taxes disproportionately hit lower-income consumers and small retailers that depend more heavily on soda sales.
Seattle Mayor Ed Murray has also proposed a soda tax, and the issue could wind up on November ballot.
Right now, the fight is in Santa Fe, which will vote on the issue May 2. The biggest donor on the “no” side: the American Beverage Association; for supporters: Michael Bloomberg.