Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Here’s how public health finally won the soda debate

Attempts to enact soda taxes have failed over and over again, in big cities and small communities. And all that losing is precisely why public health has finally won.

On Nov. 4, 75 percent of Berkeley, California, residents voted in favor of Measure D, an ordinance to impose a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on high-calorie sugary drinks. It was the first-ever soda tax to pass in the U.S. by popular vote, and presenters at Wednesday’s session on “Beverages: Promoting Healthy Choices” explained how it happened.

According to session presenter Pamela Mejia, of the Berkeley Media Studies Group, the California cities of Richmond and El Monte as well as Telluride, Colorado, failed to pass similar measures in 2012 and 2013 — and that failure helped change the conversation surrounding the soda debate from one framed by big soda corporations to “authentic community voices,” Mejia said. (FYI: Fifty-five percent of San Franciscans voted for a 2-cents-per-ounce soda tax this past November as well, however that proposal needed two-thirds of the vote to pass into law.)

“As my boss Lori Dorfman said, Richmond and El Monte threw big pebbles in the soda tax water,” Mejia said. “Berkeley and San Francisco have pushed boulders in.”

The media played an integral role in past soda tax failures, including at least 30 failed ballot measures, as well as in the recent voter breakthrough, according to Susan Klitzman of the CUNY School of Public Health. Mejia found 653 news articles covering the tax proposals in Richmond, El Monte and Telluride. Among the articles, anti-tax sentiments were more frequently visible, insinuating harmful ramifications for local economies and personal freedom.

Perhaps not surprisingly, most of these messages were covertly paid for by the soda industry, including almost $4 million from the American Beverage Association spent in Richmond and El Monte alone.

“Local anti-tax coalitions were very powerful,” Mejia said. “It’s important to know your opposition and what they will say.”

Across the country, the first citywide soda size limits almost passed in New York City in 2012, after the New York City Board of Health proposed capping the size of sugary beverages served in restaurants and movie theatres at 16 ounces. Klitzman said that a LexisNexis search of news articles and opinion pieces were heavily skewed against the tax — 52 in opposition, 17 in favor — thanks to a large corporate influence. New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, a group financed by the soft drink industry, launched well-funded public and media relations efforts as well as political and legal campaigns against the rule, Klitzman told session attendees. Also, the corporate-funded Center for Consumer Freedom ran a full-page ad in The New York Times with a tagline, “New Yorkers Need a Mayor, Not a Nanny.”

Ultimately, the limits were approved in 2012 but overturned by New York courts, which also rejected the city’s final appeal in June. Still, session presenters called for continued perseverance, education and messaging.

“Be persistent,” Klitzman said. “Building political will takes time. To do so, we need to better educate top reporters and the media folks about the issue.”

— D.G.

Above, a campaign poster from Berkeley vs. Big Soda.

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