In $50 million battle, soda tax advocates triumph

Frank Bass | November 10, 2016

November 10, 2016 -- Voters in four U.S. cities approved taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages Tuesday, a big defeat for the soft drink industry, which spent about $30 million to defeat the initiatives.

The success of the measures in San Francisco, Oakland, and Albany, Calif. and Boulder, Colo., represents a major victory for health care advocates, who see the taxes as a powerful tool to combat the nation’s obesity epidemic. Supporters of the initiative poured more than $23 million into the campaigns.

The San Francisco contest was the most expensive: the opposition, led by the American Beverage Association and Coca-Cola, raised over $22 million to fight the initiative; supporters raised $12 million, with more than half of that money coming from former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Bloomberg provided nearly all of the $10 million raised to pass Oakland’s soda tax measure; Coca-Cola and the beverage association combined to give $7.5 million to fight the initiative.

Opponents and supporters of Boulder’s measure raised a combined $1.9 million, making it the most expensive race in that city’s history, according to The Daily Camera. Its initiative levies a two-cents per-ounce tax; the three other measures add a one-cent per-ounce tax. 

Because the California cities are in the same media market, both opponents and supporters of the measures were able to reach voters with the same ad buys. The beverage industry’s ads described the initiatives as “grocery taxes,” a claim that supporters aimed to debunk in the spots they aired.

In 2014, another Bay Area city, Berkeley, Calif., became the first in the nation to pass a soda tax. In June, Philadelphia’s City Council approved a similar measure there.

Tuesday’s results thrilled supporters of the soda taxes.

Malia Cohen, a member of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors who led that city’s campaign, told The San Francisco Chronicle, “I believe this is a sign of the times, and we will begin to see more cities, and then eventually states, putting soda tax measures on the ballot.”

“We’re definitely going to take this show on the road and teach people the best practices on how to beat the big soda industry,” she said.

In a statement released on its website Wednesday, the American Beverage Association said that it will “respect the decision of the voters” in the cities that approved the taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages.

“Our energy remains squarely focused on reducing the sugar consumed from beverages – engaging with prominent public health and community organizations to change behavior,” the statement read.