Dr Pepper and Mr. Hyde: The many faces of Big Soda in soda tax debates

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You may not have heard of the Coalition for an Affordable City yet, but you will. It's a "community group" dedicated to fighting the proposed tax on sugary drinks that's set to be on San Francisco's ballot this November. The group's website features a red, white and blue color scheme, and a plethora of buzzwords like "unfair" and "affordability gap." But below that are a few words that the site's funders hope you'll pay less attention to: "Paid for by the American Beverage Association."

The Coalition for an Affordable City is nothing more than an industry front group that will exploit San Franciscans, and their very real fears about inequity, to fight the soda tax. Bankrolled by the soda industry's millions, the coalition will fund community groups and local politicians to fight the soda tax with arguments that tap into simmering divisions within the city. They know full well that those arguments would carry less weight with voters if they came from beverage industry representatives in sharp suits — better that they should come from neighbors, friends, local business owners and other familiar faces.

How can I be so confident that this will be the industry's strategy? They've done it before.

As a media researcher for the Berkeley Media Studies Group, I've seen a number of interesting policy debates play out in the news as major industries fight to deflect policy proposals that could hurt their bottom line. The debate about soda taxes began in 2012 with the small, working-class California cities of Richmond and El Monte. These two communities were set to become the first in the country to approve a penny-per-ounce soda tax, so we analyzed local and national news coverage to find out more about the tax proposals and the arguments — and strategies — used for and against them.

We found that the soda industry, concerned that the taxes could set a precedent if they passed, launched a concentrated — and costly — effort to squash both proposals. All told, the industry spent a total of $4 million on its anti-tax campaigns — in Richmond, they spent as much defeating the tax as it would have raised in a year. Where did the money go? In Richmond, much of it went to funding the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, and in El Monte, to El Monte Citizens Against Beverage Taxes.

anti-tax coalition

      Beverage industry opposition at a Richmond cultural event.

Our analysis of news coverage shows that the industry deftly tapped into fears, tensions, and divisions unique to each community. Their arguments differed on the surface, but all helped cast the soda industry as a friend to low-income communities and communities of color — the very groups it has historically targeted with its marketing. In El Monte, a city facing bankruptcy where the tax was proposed to balance the budget, the industry framed the tax as financially ruinous — just one more example of government mismanagement of funds. In Richmond, a city marked by a long history of racial divisions, the industry offensive included allegations of racism.

Though it went to great lengths to disguise its presence, Big Soda was everywhere in the news about the Richmond and El Monte beverage tax fights, its anti-tax rhetoric masked behind arguments that tapped into the very real fears of the voters they appealed to. It sounds familiar, doesn't it? In fact, Chuck Finnie, the local public relations executive who is now representing the Coalition for an Affordable City in San Francisco helmed its Richmond-based counterpart.

The failure of the proposals in Richmond and El Monte in November of 2012 must have been a relief to Big Soda — it let them get back to the important work of aggressively marketing sugary drinks to children and youth in the low-income communities of color they earlier claimed they wanted to help. Now, soda taxes are back in the news and back on the ballot in San Francisco. That means Big Soda has a new face, a new community group, and a new name — but it's up to the same old tricks.

Pamela Mejia is a research associate at the Berkeley Media Studies Group, and the lead author of Two communities, two debates: News coverage of soda tax proposals in Richmond and El Monte.

This piece has also appeared on BeyondChron.

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