Soda tax debates: News coverage of ballot measures in Richmond and El Monte, California, 2012

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June 17, 2013

In 2012, the working-class California cities of Richmond and El Monte asked voters to consider a penny-per-ounce taxa on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). The measures appeared on the ballot alongside companion advisory policies that proposed earmarking revenue from the tax for youth obesity prevention programs and, in El Monte, for other city services as well. The soda industry launched a $4 million campaign to defeat the two proposals, making the soda taxes the focus of the most expensive election campaigns in either city's history. The SSB ballot measures were rejected in the November 6 election (by 67% in Richmond and 77% in El Monte), although the advisory policies that accompanied them passed by wide margins.

This preliminary report highlights key aspects of how the news covered the proposals, including the type and volume of coverage they received, who was quoted, and the arguments made by advocates and opponents of the policies. We will publish a full analysis of how both debates were framed in news coverage later this year.

What was the news about?

Articles about the Richmond tax dominated newspaper coverage and appeared most frequently at key milestones leading up to the election.

We found a total of 547 newspaper articles (see Appendix 1 for methods), including English-language news, Spanish-language news, and industry publications. After randomly selecting half of the English-language articles, our final sample included 218 articles that substantively discussed the tax policies. The remaining articles mentioned the policy debates only in passing or were not relevant.

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The majority of the news focused on the Richmond tax proposal: 64% of articles were about Richmond, compared to only 15% about El Monte; 6% were primarily about some other SSB policy (such as the proposed soda size limit in New York City), while 15% of news stories had another focus, such as, for example, a profile of Jeff Ritterman, the outgoing city council member who developed, sponsored, and promoted the Richmond measure.

Opinion pieces were more or less evenly divided for and against the tax.

The majority of the coverage was news (57%), while 43% was opinion pieces including letters-to-the-editor, op-eds and blogs. Opinion coverage was more or less evenly divided: 44% of opinion pieces favored soda taxes, 39% opposed the policies, and 17% took a mixed or unclear position. However, of the nine editorials that appeared, all took an anti-tax position.

Most of the opinion coverage appeared directly before and after the elections: 70% appeared between September and November 2012, with 40% appearing in October alone. News articles were more evenly distributed across the year.

Who was quoted in the coverage?

The most frequent speakers in the news were city officials such as Richmond City Council member Jeff Ritterman, as well as residents of the two cities and surrounding areas, opinion writers (including columnists and editorial boards), public health advocates, and doctors and medical researchers. City officials, public health advocates, and the medical community spoke overwhelmingly in favor of the tax, while community residents and opinion authors were more or less evenly split for and against the tax.

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Speakers who were explicitly identified as representatives of soda companies or soda-affiliated organizations (like the American Beverage Association) comprised only 5% of total arguments (all anti-tax). Spokespeople for the industry-funded Richmond anti-tax group Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes (CCABT) and its El Monte counterpart, El Monte Citizens Against Beverage Taxes, expressed an additional 6% of anti-tax arguments. CCABT included a broad swath of the Richmond community, particularly its African-American community.1 Among others, the Coalition included city officials (such as Councilman Corky Booze); local business owners; medical professionals; African-American leaders (such as the head of the Black American Political Action Committee [BAPAC]); community residents; and religious leaders (see Appendix 2). El Monte Citizens Against Beverage Taxes primarily included local businesses (see Appendix 3). At times, these speakers were quoted in the news, but their industry affiliations were not acknowledged. Therefore, Table 2 (below) may somewhat underrepresent the presence of the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, El Monte Citizens Against Beverage Taxes, and, by extension, the SSB industry, in the news.

What arguments appeared in the news?

Each article could contain a variety of arguments. On average, each story contained nine arguments, for a total of 2,125. Table 2 lists the prevalence of these arguments in each community. Overall, pro-tax arguments appeared more frequently than arguments urging the taxes' defeat (63% vs. 37%).

The arguments fell into three categories. Some described the need for the taxes, centering on whether obesity is a high-priority health crisis and whether soda is a prime suspect worthy of regulation (25% of total arguments). A second category (50% of total arguments) discussed the impact of the taxes on the health and economy of the two communities, as when Richmond Better Business Bureau CEO Judy Morgan said, "small businesses, family owned businesses are going to be hit hard."2 The remainder of the arguments debated the role and actions of two key institutions: the government and the SSB industry (24% of total arguments).b

How did the news describe the need for the policy?

In both cities, tax supporters and even some tax opponents acknowledged that high obesity rates and related health issues were a problem in their communities.

Most commonly, proponents of the tax pointed to obesity statistics as a rationale for the taxes. Some tax opponents conceded that obesity was a problem but argued that the SSB taxes were not the right solution. While opponents did not claim that obesity was not a problem, a few argued that other issues, such as violence or high unemployment, were more deserving of city leaders' attention.

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Supporters of the taxes in both communities consistently argued that SSBs were harmful to health and that they contributed to high obesity rates.

Columnist Edward Barrera argued, for example, that "sugary drinks are a health hazard, fueling diabetes and obesity."3 Opponents rarely contested SSBs' negative health impact (2% of total arguments). When they did, they usually described SSBs as a "treat" that could be safely consumed in moderation.

How did the news discuss the potential impact of the taxes?

In Richmond, proponents frequently framed the tax in terms of its benefit to community health, while in El Monte, the health benefits of the tax were discussed secondarily to its economic impact. Opponents in both cities questioned the true health benefits that the soda tax would produce.

Tax supporters in both communities argued that the proposed taxes would improve community health by either increasing the price of SSBs and reducing consumption or by raising money for health programs. Compared to their El Monte counterparts, SSB tax proponents on the Richmond City Council were more vocal about the health benefits of the tax and the programs it would support. Richmond council member Jeff Ritterman focused squarely on the health benefits of an SSB tax, arguing that it would create "a healthier future for our children."4 El Monte city officials emphasized that the tax was first about raising revenue for the general fund and second about improving health, as when Mayor Andre Quintero, the architect of that city's proposal, said: "[T]here are significant financial hurdles that we need to start dealing with now, so having this type of tax as an option brings in revenue and hopefully encourages individuals to make healthier choices."5

Opponents argued that the tax would not make people physically healthier. Critics maintained that the tax would not reduce SSB consumption, that tax revenues would not actually go toward health programs, and that individuals were responsible for improving their own health. Frames that contested the health benefits appeared about as often in Richmond's coverage as in El Monte's.

Tax opponents and proponents in El Monte focused on the potential influence of the tax on the local economy. Richmond tax opponents argued that the tax would have negative economic consequences for the community, but supporters there did not emphasize economic arguments.

Tax supporters in El Monte argued that an SSB tax would balance the city budget and "[address] long-term structural budget deficits. Without the additional revenue, El Monte officials have painted a bleak financial future."6 In Richmond, tax proponents seldom made economic arguments; when they did, they claimed that the SSB tax would not economically harm the community and could even help. As Richmond Mayor Gayle McLaughlin told reporters: "Instead of hurting businesses, we think [the tax] will help businesses. People will see us as an innovative city. We'll be a national model."7

Economic arguments opposing the tax appeared more often in El Monte coverage (17% of total arguments) than in Richmond coverage (11%). The most common economic argument against the tax in both cities was that it would harm local businesses, as when Richmond council member Nat Bates said, "It is not fair to Richmond business people. If there's an extra tax here, people are just going to go to El Cerrito, San Pablo, or Pinole to do their shopping."8 Other variants argued that the tax would harm consumers, residents or the general community. Opponents claimed that the tax would cause economic harm by forcing store owners to raise the price of all food or increase the price of necessary and popular healthy products, such as infant formula or senior medical beverages.c

In Richmond, the soda tax debate was imbued with racial and socioeconomic overtones that were not present in El Monte.

Richmond coverage included a number of arguments that framed the soda tax as a regressive policy that would harm low-income communities. Chuck Finnie, representing the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, characterized the proposal as a strategy for "balancing the budget on the backs of those who can least afford it."11 Some described the tax as a "racist ploy"12 that would "marginalize people of color."13 Proponents occasionally pushed back against these arguments. For example, Jeff Ritterman countered, "[T]hese diseases are regressive. The beverage industry particularly targets our poor communities where they are advertising."14 These counterstatements appeared infrequently (1% of total arguments), however, and were dwarfed by the criticisms of the tax's opponents. In El Monte, arguments about the tax's racial or socioeconomic impact rarely appeared (<1% of total arguments).

How did the news portray the role of government and the soda industry?

In both communities, soda tax coverage included substantial discussion of the soda industry's aggressive and costly campaigns against the measures, characterizing the industry's actions as duplicitous, financially motivated, or otherwise detrimental.

The most common critique of industry behavior held that the soda industry was overwhelming the community with anti-tax advertising. El Monte's mayor likened the industry's flood of anti-tax advertising to a "siege"15 and hypothesized that the industry intended to "obliterate [the measure], so that no elected official considers putting something like this on the ballot."16,17 Some arguments were neutral statements from journalists describing the volume of industry campaign spending. Others argued that the soda industry was lying to voters with dishonest campaign materials and advertisements. Finally, public health advocates, community residents, and others argued that the industry did not truly care about the communities in which it was fighting the tax. For example, Richmond public health organizer and tax proponent Jenny Wang told a local paper, "I am so angry [Richmond residents] are getting all these mailers funded by people from out of town who care nothing about Richmond."18

El Monte speakers argued that the tax was government overreach; Richmond speakers were more supportive of their local government action.

In El Monte, the coverage included many frames that characterized the proposed tax as government overreach. As one local mother said, "kids shouldn't drink so much soda, but that's the parents' responsibility, not the city's and not the mayor's."16 Few arguments that appeared in El Monte coverage supported government action.

The majority of frames relating to the role of the city government that appeared in Richmond coverage were more supportive, arguing that the city government "had to start somewhere" in the fight against obesity rates.19, 20 Many framed the tax as an important first step that would inspire other governments to take action. For example, public health advocate Harold Goldstein said that Richmond had an opportunity to "make history. Cities and states will be watching this across the country."21 Very few Richmond frames disputed the appropriateness of the city government's action. Those that did framed the tax as the beginning of a "slippery slope"22 that would end with government regulation of any number of foods23, 24, 25 and the loss of personal freedoms.26

Preliminary conclusions and lessons learned

News coverage of the Richmond and El Monte proposals differed in several key respects. El Monte's policy was explicitly and, at least in news coverage, almost exclusively framed as an economic issue. In Richmond, tax proponents focused on the potential health benefits of the policy. Moreover, the debate in Richmond was explicitly racialized, in contrast to the conversation around El Monte's tax. This finding may reflect the industry's efforts to take advantage of existing racial tension in Richmond. There, the industry-funded Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes brought together and funded many leaders from the African-American community, who decried the tax as racist and regressive.

In both communities, the news regularly discussed the soda industry and its actions during the campaign. The industry's primary "face" during the debates was not soda company or trade association executives, but rather community residents, public relations executives, and other speakers at a distance from the industry. The industry and its affiliated speakers did not dispute the obesity epidemic and, at least in these campaigns, rarely questioned the health harms of their product. Instead, the bulk of the arguments from all industry-funded speakers focused on the ineffectiveness of the policy and the economic damage the taxes would cause the communities.

Missed opportunities and future directions

Tax proponents and opponents made extensive use of opinion space (including editorials and letters to the editor) in Richmond. However, by focusing their advocacy efforts primarily on the election period, public health advocates may have missed an opportunity to build on the groundswell of news coverage growing around sugar-sweetened beverage taxes that began earlier in the summer of 2012.

Although pro-tax frames dominated the coverage and many were expressed by community residents, the news ultimately did not reflect voters' feeling toward the tax: In both cities, the proposals were defeated by a wide margin. This discrepancy may in part reflect journalists' efforts to bring balanced viewpoints to their stories.

The news coverage of the proposed taxes in Richmond and El Monte also offer a window into the progression of advocates' efforts to "denormalize" SSBs and the industry that produces them. Denormalization is the process the tobacco control movement used to reposition tobacco products, and the tobacco industry's marketing of those products, as hazardous and harmful.27 Obesity prevention advocates are increasingly interested in denormalizing SSBs and SSB marketing.28 Our analysis indicates that the news contained many messages about the health harms of soda and the duplicitous and aggressive campaign activities of the SSB industry. The prevalence of these messages suggests that arguments that denormalize SSBs, and the industry practices that promote them, have begun to appear in news coverage. Advocates have an opportunity to build momentum around denormalizing SSBs and the SSB industry during future policy debates.

Appendix 1: Methodology

We searched the LexisNexis news database for newspaper articles published between November 2011 and January 2013 that mentioned the Richmond and/or El Monte tax proposals. We supplemented this search with reviews of the online archives of English- and Spanish-language newspapers not included in the Nexis database that we knew covered these campaigns from our daily media monitoring. We also searched the online and print archives of industry trade press publications.

Due to the large number of English-language news articles, we selected for our sample every other article from each database and news outlet. Since we identified only a small number of Spanish-language (11% of final sample) and industry press news pieces (2% of final sample), we included all of these in our analysis.

Appendix 2: Members of the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes (see pdf pages 13-15 for full list)29

Appendix 3: Members of El Monte Citizens Against Beverage Taxes (see pdf pages 16-7 for full list) 30

Endnotes

a The measures proposed a business license fee under which local business owners would pay the city one cent per ounce of certain sugar-sweetened beverages sold.

b Arguments may not sum to 100% due to rounding.

c From its inception, the El Monte measure included ballot language that exempted such products from being taxed.9 The Richmond city council soon modified the language in its policy to include a similar exemption.10

Acknowledgments

This report was written by Pamela Mejia, MPH, MS; Laura Nixon, MPH; Rebecca Womack; Andrew Cheyne, CPhil; and Lori Dorfman, DrPH

We thank the Healthy Eating Research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and The California Endowment for supporting this study. We thank the staff of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, especially Stefan Harvey and Harold Goldstein, for their insights and feedback in the development of this study. Thanks to Heather Gehlert for copy editing and to Sandra Young for her thoughtful contributions.

© Berkeley Media Studies Group, a project of the Public Health Institute, 2013

References

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2. Rogers R. (2012, July 10). Big Soda cast as Big Tobacco for 21st century. The Hawk Eye.

3. Barrera E. (2012, December 15). Sugary drinks are a health hazard. Pasadena Star News.

4. Point-Counter Point: Richmond Measure N soda tax. Halfway to Concord. September 30, 2012. Available at: http://www.halfwaytoconcord.com/point-counter-point-richmond-measure-n-soda-tax. Accessed February 25, 2013.

5. Velazquez M. (2012, July 23 ). El Monte Council to consider fiscal emergency, "sweet" tax for November ballot. San Gabriel Valley Tribune.

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15. Beverage industry spending millions to defeat Richmond soda tax. CBS San Francisco. October 9, 2012. Available at: http://sanfrancisco.cbslocal.com/2012/10/09/beverage-industry-spending-millions-to-defeat-richmond-soda-tax. Accessed February 19, 2013.

16. Allen S. (2012, October 29). Ad blitz aims to drown soda tax: El Monte mayor saw measure as a slam dunk. Then the drink makers declared war. Los Angeles Times.

17. Early S. Getting into bed with Big Soda: How labor helped win a vote for more obesity. Huffington Post. November 7, 2012. Available at: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/steve-early/richmond-soda-tax_b_2089732.html. Accessed February 20, 2013.

18. Kanhema T. Richmond residents say goodby to soda at Measure N campaign event. Richmond Confidential. October 22, 2012. Available at: http://richmondconfidential.org/2012/10/22/richmond-residents-say-goodbye-to-soda-at-measure-n-campaign-event/. Accessed February 25, 2013.

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29. Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes. Quienes Somos. Available at: http://www.noparan.com/who-we-are/. Accessed June 13, 2013.

30. El Monte Citizens Against Beverage Taxes. Quienes Somos. Available at: http://noparah.com/who-we-are/. Accessed June 13, 2013.

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