Soda Tax Myths: Are Beverages Being Unfairly Targeted?

by Dana Woldow on March 3, 2014

February wasn’t a good month for Big Soda. As proposed soda tax measures moved forward in San Francisco and Berkeley, and the concept gained traction in Illinois and Connecticut, it seemed like each week brought a new study showing that sugary beverage taxes do not cause job losses, or that such taxes do result in consumers making healthier beverage choices. Scientific research is undermining all of Big Soda’s traditional arguments against a sugary beverage tax.

Meanwhile, legislation designed to help consumers make better beverage choices and lead healthier lives is clearly gaining popularity with voters. A recent Field Poll showed that 74% of Californians surveyed support putting health warning labels on sugary beverages, while 67% statewide and a whopping 78% of SF Bay Area residents support a soda tax to benefit health, nutrition and physical activity programs, as has been proposed for both SF and Berkeley. As frustration mounts within the ranks of Big Soda’s shills over their inability to control public opinion, can anyone blame them if they occasionally crack?

San Francisco Bay Guardian reporter Joe Fitzgerald Rodriguez recently looked into claims made by the American Beverage Association front group Coalition for an Affordable City. The Coalition’s list of small businesses that purportedly opposed the SF soda tax measure turned out to be riddled with inaccuracies, including the names of businesses which had closed, and signatures from employees not authorized to speak on behalf of the business, as well as owners who said that they had been misled about the tax by the Coalition.

Chuck Finnie works at BMWL and Partners, the PR firm hired to oppose the soda tax; he is heading up that effort. Before becoming a paid mouthpiece, Finnie was a legitimate journalist who wrote for a variety of newspapers around California. When Bay Guardian reporter Rodriguez accepted his offer to visit the BMWL offices and look at the signatures of small business owners supposedly opposed to the soda tax, Finnie lost his cool and called the investigation into the legitimacy of those signatures “bullshit”.

Seems like kind of an odd response from a former journalist. Surely investigating the legitimacy of claims made by advocates on either side of a debate about public policy is the very essence of what good journalists should be doing?

But then claiming to be unfairly targeted is at the heart of one of Big Soda’s most enduring myths: that all calories are equal, and that it is overconsumption of any food without burning off the calories that leads to obesity, so singling out sugary beverages for special taxes is punitive and unfair. People can get just as fat from eating cake or pecan pie as from drinking Mountain Dew, right?

Wrong. An increasing body of scientific research shows that our bodies process liquid calories differently from food calories. Our brains don’t register the same feeling of fullness (what scientists call “satiety”) from 150 calories of Coke as they do from 150 calories of apples, or even of cake. Thus, we can drink hundreds of calories of sugary beverages without the feeling of satiety, or fullness, we would experience if those calories came from cake. As a result, people don’t compensate for the extra calories they take in from sugary drinks by eating less food.

What’s more, lacking any nutrients – protein, fiber or fat – to slow down absorption, the rush of fructose into the bloodstream from drinking a sugary beverage is so overwhelming to the liver that drinking just two cans of soda a day increases the risk of liver damage by 80%. Daily consumption of those same 2 sodas has also been linked with proteinuria, or increased secretion of protein in the urine, which is considered a signifier of kidney dysfunction.

There’s another reason why sugary beverages should be called out for special legislation, rather than cake or pecan pie. Registered dietitian Andy Bellatti, MS, RD, says, “Unlike cake, soda is ubiquitous, relentlessly marketed (even more so to teens and minorities), and has lobbying groups exclusively devoted to it, ready to spend millions of dollars at the slightest sign of public health policy that would hurt Big Soda’s bottom line.”

We’ve seen that already in California. In October 2012, when Big Soda’s PR flack Chuck Finnie was working to defeat a soda tax proposal in Richmond, CA, he told the Contra Costa Times that the beverage industry was “going to spend what is necessary” to make sure that voters heard their side of the issue. In the end, “what is necessary” turned out to be about $2.5 million spent to defeat the Richmond tax proposal.

Because a soda tax passing in San Francisco would likely inspire other communities to follow suit, sponsors of the SF measure expect Big Soda will spend far more than that to defeat their proposal, reports the SF Chronicle.

Where does all the money go?

The Berkeley Media Studies Group recently released a study of the role the media played in the Richmond soda tax (and in a similar proposal also defeated in the Southern California community of El Monte.) The study describes how industry spending went not just to pay for advertising urging a No vote on soda tax measures, but also to fund “community groups” whose members turned out to speak against the tax at public meetings, made themselves available to be interviewed by reporters, and wrote opinion pieces and letters to the editor of local newspapers – all ways of trying to control the way the media “frames” the issue.

The study explains:

“Across all forms of media, social and health issues are “framed” or portrayed through a complex process of organizing information to create meaning. As they cover stories, journalists select certain arguments, examples, images, messages, and sources to create a picture of the issue. The selection — or omission — of arguments and voices works like a frame around a picture, telling us what information is important and what information we can ignore. For example, people and viewpoints that are included in a news story are perceived as more credible than those that are excluded.”

How did this play out in Richmond and El Monte? The study says:

“Opponents used the news to tell a story about soda taxes undermining and dividing the community. To support this narrative, they used frames that challenged the effectiveness of a soda tax, its impact on the economy, and its fairness to low-income residents of color. A broad range of spokespeople, including community residents, small business owners and religious leaders, voiced anti-tax arguments. Many of these speakers belonged to the industry-funded Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes in Richmond and Citizens Against Beverage Taxes in El Monte.”

It does seem a little disingenuous for Big Soda shill Finnie to call a reporter’s investigation into his organization’s “community group” Coalition for an Affordable City “bullshit”, or for him to threaten that now “The gloves are off”, as the SFBG also reported. With the beverage industry’s history of spending millions to control the public debate around soda taxes, it seems like the gloves were never on.

Is the beverage industry being unfairly targeted, and should we sympathize? Not at all, says New York University professor Marion Nestle, one of the country’s leading authorities on nutrition and food politics.

“It’s too bad for soda companies,” she told me, “but their products are an easy target: they contain sugars and water but nothing else of nutritional value—empty calories, as it were, and liquid candy at that. The companies have sunk a fortune into encouraging people to consider sodas as normal fare rather than treats and to drink them everywhere, at all times of day, and in absurdly large quantities. I can’t scare up much sympathy for them.”

Michele Simon has even less sympathy. She is a public health lawyer and president of Eat Drink Politics, a consulting firm on food industry tactics. She says, “What’s unfair is how Big Soda exploits low-income families with relentless marketing, floods their neighborhoods with cheap sugar water and then whines about being “singled out.” Cry me a river.”

Read other articles in the Soda Tax Myths series:

Soda Tax Myths: Are Beverage Companies Friends to the Poor?

Soda Tax Myths: The Arkansas Argument

Soda Tax Myths: Soda Taxes Distract from Real Issues

Truth an Early Casualty in SF’s Soda Tax Fight

More on debunking soda tax myths.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.

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