Echoes of the tobacco wars: Why is Big Soda afraid to publicly oppose the Richmond soda tax?

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The city council of Richmond, Calif., has made headlines by putting a penny-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages before voters this November. The ballot measure has become an opportunity to raise awareness about the health harms of sugary drinks and, if passed, could become a model policy for other cities looking to put their community's health above soda corporations' profits.

All of this has the beverage industry running scared and once again borrowing tactics from Big Tobacco -- this time in an effort to deceive voters.

In a classic tobacco industry move, soda companies are using a front group to publicly lead the fight against the tax. In Richmond, the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes claims to be a local grassroots organization against the ballot measure. The Coalition, however, is funded primarily by the American Beverage Association, a soda industry trade group. So far, the ABA has spent over $350,000 fighting the measure; that's more than 10 to 1 what proponents of the tax have spent.

All of this allows soda companies to attack policies they oppose while protecting their brands.

But the soda industry isn't stopping where Big Tobacco did. It is taking its attempts to anonymously influence our democratic process even further. Thanks in large part to the 2010 Citizens United Supreme Court ruling that declared corporations associations of people and granted them speech rights under the first amendment, soda companies are enjoying a regulatory context that allows them to flex extraordinary political muscle.

In Richmond, the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes allegedly has been distributing mass mailings in violation of city campaign-disclosure rules that require campaigns to prominently reveal their top five funding sources. When the city ordered the Coalition to comply with the ordinance, they responded by filing a lawsuit challenging the action as unconstitutional on first amendment grounds. Coalition spokesman Chuck Finnie claimed that the ordinance hurt free speech.

Last month, Big Soda got its way. On Sept. 7, a federal judge in San Francisco issued a temporary restraining order, blocking the city of Richmond's ability to enforce its ordinance. As a result, Richmond's city council has since reworked and approved a watered-down version of the ordinance, which only requires that three major sources of funding be revealed and less conspicuously. The new ordinance has also been stripped of criminal penalties.

Rulings like this make it harder for voters to see who is funding the campaigns influencing the policy decisions that shape their own neighborhoods.

Public health advocates and journalists need to call out the soda industry's double-speak. Publicly, soda companies want to appear as friends of low-income communities and communities of color, including in Richmond. But when communities organize to remove the unhealthy influence of industry in their area, soda companies fight back. They are not only using Big Tobacco's tactics to hide their opposition, they are even trying exploit the Citizens United decision to downplay their influence.

Exposing this contradiction is fundamental to protecting our democracy from corporate control: No matter where you stand on the tax policy, we all should be able to know who seeks influence in our political process.

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