Media advocacy strategy for soda tax measures: Preparing for tough questions

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Part of our work at Berkeley Media Studies Group is to help health advocates and their allies prepare for media interviews as well as other opportunities to talk about their policy goals.

One of the most important lessons in media advocacy is that hard questions are an inevitable and perfectly valid part of any interview or discussion. And successfully responding to those tough inquiries while avoiding common pitfalls — giving weak answers, becoming defensive, or getting sidetracked and going off message — takes practice.

A common request from advocates is for assistance with answering tough questions around policy proposals designed to reduce consumption of sugary drinks — the single largest contributor to caloric intake in the United States and a major contributor to the diabetes epidemic and other nutrition-related diseases.

The sugary beverage industry has mustered its considerable resources to fight these proposals — particularly soda tax measures like the ones introduced last year in the California cities of Richmond and El Monte. The soda industry launched a $4 million campaign to defeat the two proposals, and the two measures were rejected by wide margins.

Despite these defeats, advocates expect more soda tax proposals to follow. As we've learned from efforts to limit tobacco and alcohol use, raising the price of products that are dangerous to our health is a proven public health approach.

But how should advocates respond to questions about freedom of choice, government intervention, and other common sentiments expressed by the opposition and fomented by the sugary beverage industry? Here are some common hard questions and sample responses. For more information and ideas on talking points, we recommend visiting

How do you know a tax will reduce soda consumption? Although research (including a 2012 analysis by scientists at the University of California San Francisco that estimates a penny-per-ounce tax would prevent nearly 100,000 cases of heart disease and 26,000 deaths over the next decade) suggests that a tax on sugary beverages would reduce consumption and, as a result, reduce diabetes and other health problems associated with soda, the purpose of the soda tax is to pay for important programs and services to help offset those harms and keep our children healthy — particularly in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color most aggressively targeted by the sugary beverage industry. Revenues from a few pennies on soda could provide nutritious school meals, access to drinking water, physical education, and parks and recreation programs.

Isn't nutrition education the answer to addressing the obesity problem? Education is important but it can't do the job alone, especially when children are bombarded with more than $1 million a day of soda marketing at every turn: on billboards in their neighborhoods — sometimes attached to their own apartment buildings — in their schools, in the windows of practically every corner store, and in grocery aisles, on TV, computer screens and more. Education simply cannot compete with the relentless marketing from soda companies.

Isn't children's health parents' responsibility? Parents making smart choices about what to feed their families play a critical role in preventing childhood obesity, but parents and kids face an enormous challenge because sugary drinks are available everywhere and are heavily marketed: The soda industry spends more than $1 million every day to target their products to children. It's soda companies — not parents — that are stocking corner store shelves and grocery check-out lanes with sugary drinks that in some places cost less than bottled water. It's soda companies that are enticing youth with online games and activities. And it's soda companies that are undermining parental authority by encouraging kids to interact with brands directly on their cell phones with apps like "Spin the Bottle." No parent can create a shield big enough to protect his or her kids from this level of intense marketing.

Isn't this just a regressive tax that will further hurt poor people trying to feed their families? It's the disproportionate impact of diabetes on low-income families and communities of color that's regressive. If soda companies were really concerned about the health of low-income communities, they wouldn't market to them so aggressively. Research shows many residents in low-income neighborhoods support a soda tax. In California, 78 percent of Latinos and 70 percent of African Americans support a soda tax. And low-income residents support the tax by almost two-to-one if revenues fund obesity prevention programs.

Should government be telling us what we should and shouldn't drink? The truth is, the government is us. One of the great things about democracy is that people have the power, through their elected representatives, to decide what kind of communities they want for themselves and their children. Taxing soda, the leading contributor to obesity, is exactly the right thing to do. It's completely appropriate for our community to decide that sugary drinks should cost a few pennies more so that we can offset the harms they cause. I'm glad our representatives take protecting the health of [insert city here] very seriously. The result will be healthier children, families and entire communities.

There are likely to be more hard questions as the issue of soda taxes continues to bubble up. Tough questions are tough because they represent legitimate concerns. Just keep in mind that protecting public health is just as legitimate. Reducing consumption of sugary drinks will likely be a long, drawn-out battle. Being armed with facts and having solid responses to opposition arguments will give advocates a winning strategy.

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