Is 'Big Soda' mimicking Big Tobacco? California beverage battle spills over.

The beverage industry has fended off bids to regulate or tax sugary drinks in 30 states, but California is a trend-setter and two initiatives could be a pivot point.

Jeff Chiu/AP
A shelf of soft drinks is shown in a refrigerator at K & D Market in San Francisco. A tax on sodas and other sugar-laden drinks is on the November ballots in San Francisco and Berkeley, Calif., two cities that have been open to such social-engineering initiatives in the past.

The battle for votes on soda-tax initiatives in two California cities is contentious, but both sides agree: The votes could be hugely important in the national campaign to raise taxes on sugary drinks.

So far, efforts to pass similar measures in 30 states have failed. But historically, the Golden State has been a leader in public health initiatives, such as tobacco and recycling, says Marlene Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.

If San Francisco and Berkeley pass initiatives to ramp up taxes on sodas and other high-sugar drinks, the rest of the nation could begin to follow.

“California is very important,” says Dr. Schwartz. “California is ahead of the rest of the country on issues like that.”

The American Beverage Association (ABA), which works on behalf of industry giants such as Pepsi and Coca-Cola, has so far contributed a record $9.4 million to defeat the two measures in November.

Critics of the industry point to research that suggests sugary drinks are a prime culprit behind obesity rates and diabetes in the United States. The industry counters that the tax would have negative economic consequences.

These debates have played out across various states and cities before, most notably when New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg failed in his effort to ban soft drinks of more than 16 ounces. But both sides say the battle over these two measures has taken the debate to a higher pitch.

“These are the most sophisticated  campaigns we have seen,” says Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the ABA. 

The interests of small business owners and consumers are being trampled in the rush to judgment, he says.

Supporters of the initiatives, however, liken the ABA's tactics to those of Big Tobacco when it was fighting further regulation. It has blanketed municipalities with TV ads and nearly daily mailings, in addition to filing lawsuits, said Holly Scheider of the Healthy Child Coalition, who was formerly the tobacco policy coordinator for neighboring Contra Costa County, in a statement.

Indeed, in August, campaign opponents successfully sued to have the description of items to be taxed in the Berkeley initiative rewritten – from “high-calorie," "sugary," and "low-nutrition" to "sugar-sweetened beverages."

“This level of spending from the ABA is really unprecedented,” says Josh Daniels, president of the Berkeley School Board and spokesman for the local initiative.

More broadly, beverage industry leaders have begun corporate responsibility campaigns, which seek to highlight healthy lifestyles and cast the companies in a more favorable light by stressing corporate philanthropy. This is directly from the Big Tobacco "playbook," according to a 2012 study by PLOS Medicine.

"When facing crises over health concerns, many industries attempt to thwart regulation and gain popular support," write the authors. "The tobacco industry has a long history of influencing the public and policymakers, and oil companies, among others, have emulated Big Tobacco's 'playbook' in this regard."

Claims that the taxes will be a job-killer are also familiar refrains from the battles over tobacco, says Harold Goldstein, director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. He points to a March 2013 study from the University of Chicago, conducted by veterans of research on the tobacco industry. The study, entitled “Employment Impact of Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Taxes,” found that not only would the proposed taxes not decrease jobs, they would actually slightly increase employment opportunities, with taxes generating more revenue.

“There is no question that these initiatives in California will be a game changer for this debate,” Dr. Goldstein adds.

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