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Strategic Alliance Rapid Response: October 10, 2014

Big Soda's big spending offers a prime opportunity for media advocacy

The soda industry has been in the news a lot lately—but it can be hard to tell where the industry stands on health issues. Big Soda recently got some good press when it announced plans to reduce by 20 percent the number of calories consumed by drinkers of its products in the U.S. by 2025. But the industry also generated some not-so-flattering headlines in stories this week covering the $9.4 million it has poured into the effort to defeat proposed taxes on sugary beverages in San Francisco and Berkeley.

The disparate coverage reflects the ongoing tug-of-war between the health community and the industry to define the terms of the conversation. As advocates start to make headway on policies that would limit the marketing and reduce the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, Big Soda is making some small concessions, while spending large to derail community-driven efforts.

This week, our media round-up includes coverage and analysis of news stories on Big Soda’s efforts to crush proposed soda taxes in Berkeley and San Francisco. We’ve also got some opportunities for you to engage in timely media advocacy and resources that can help you keep the conversation focused where it needs to be—on the value of policies that protect our health and curb consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages.

In the News

•    Part of the solution? Last month, the American Beverage Association announced plans to reduce by 20 percent the number of calories downed by U.S. drinkers between now and 2025. The ABA’s Susan Neely called the initiative the “largest voluntary effort by an industry to help fight obesity.” But industry watchers quickly pointed out that the pledge amounted to little more than the industry taking credit for a trend that’s already taking place. In a column for Time Magazine, Marion Nestle, a nutrition researcher at NYU, noted that per capita consumption of soft drinks has dropped 20 percent since the late 1990s. In a New York Times article, Kelly Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University, agreed. “What better way to get a public relations boost than to promise to do what’s happening anyway?” he said.

•    Money talks (and makes a good media hook). The beverage industry’s disclosure that it has invested $7.7 million into defeating San Francisco’s Measure E prompted this quip from the San Francisco Bay Guardian: “If the soda tax proponents brought a supersoaker to the November ballot showdown, the soda industry brought a tsunami.” In Berkeley, the American Beverage Association has spent $1.7 million. “If one side has 10 times more money to send mailers, and pay people to have conversations with voters, it creates distorted conditions for voters to effectively decide on what laws they want,” noted Daniel Newman, president of MapLight, in a Berkeleyside story. But that’s not stopping Measure D supporters from being optimistic. Berkeley City Councilmember Linda Maio told the New York Times that the battle reminded her of Berkeley’s early efforts to ban smoking or create curb cuts for wheelchairs. “Our firsts were all like that. It’s very much like tobacco, she said. We are just getting started. This is how it happens. It has to be encouraged for other cities. This is the beginning of a movement.”

•    Soda tax sea change. Following the 2012 failure of a soda tax measure in Richmond, California, Berkeley Media Study Group’s Lori Dorfman wrote that for advocates, the defeat was also a victory. “The more a policy is proposed, the more people discuss and understand it,” she said. “Policy proposals create opportunities for news coverage that set the agenda for public discussion.” Two years later, her words look prescient. In 2012, the San Francisco Chronicle opposed the Richmond soda tax. This weekend, the Chronicle voiced its strong support for San Francisco’s Measure E and expressed a willingness to go even further, endorsing a statewide soda tax: “Yes, a statewide approach would be preferable, but there is no way the politicians in Sacramento — let alone Washington — are going to stand up to the beverage industry. It’s time once again for San Francisco to lead the way on a critical matter of public health. Vote yes on Proposition E.”

Talking Points

These stories and the approaching election provide advocates with an opportunity to address this issue. Below are some talking points that may help:

•    Voluntary efforts—like the beverage industry’s pledge to cut calories—don’t go far enough. The soda industry is “going to sell all the sugar-sweetened beverages they can persuade consumers to buy, which is why we need soda taxes, and why they’re precisely the kinds of public health measures the federal government should be actively pursuing.” - Mark Bittman, New York Times

•    Soda companies shouldn’t undermine community priorities. In San Francisco and Berkeley, industry-sponsored campaigns against the taxes have raised a combined $9.4 million, roughly 24 times more than proponents. In an October 1 editorial in Berkeleyside, Pamela Gray wrote that Berkeley residents trust their city council—not the beverage industry—to protect kids’ health: “The City Council agreed unanimously to put the soda tax on the November ballot…Berkeley voters trust their elected leaders to act in good faith …because, unlike the American Beverage Association, the Berkeley City Council is accountable to the people that elected them.”

•    If the beverage industry really wanted to be part of the solution, they’d invest in initiatives with real capacity to improve community health. Instead of using its riches to drown out community-driven campaigns, Big Soda could have used its $9.4 million to purchase 2,300 new drinking fountains for SF and Berkeley schools – ensuring access to free, safe tap water for our kids. That’s the kind of solution that holds promise for the health of our communities, and along with access to nutritious school meals, physical education, and parks and recreation programs, that’s precisely the kind of solution a sugar-sweetened beverage tax can help to fund.

Take action:
•    Write an Op-Ed or letter to the editor of your local paper to make the case for soda taxes and other measures to limit beverage industry marketing. Read our tips for how to get published.
•    Respond with online comments to the recent spate of media coverage. Our alert links to many of the stories published this week.
•    Watch and share We’re Not Buying It, our video highlighting deceptive marketing to children, debunking industry claims, and uncovering the tactics industry uses to undermine local initiatives.

Did you submit a comment or get something published? We want to hear about it! Connect with us on Twitter (@strat_alliance) or send us an e-mail to share your efforts.

Let's crunch the numbers

What could Big Soda have bought with its $9.4 million spent to sink San Francisco and Berkeley’s sugar-sweetened beverage tax campaigns? 

2,300 new drinking fountains for SF and Berkeley schools


4.8 million healthy lunches for SF school children


17 miles of protected bike lanes in SF and Berkeley


330,000 youth swim lessons in SF and Berkeley

Soda Battle by the Bay

Read the Forbes blog by PI’s Rob Waters on the changed political climate surrounding soda tax proposals in Berkeley and San Francisco.

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