Talking Back to Big Soda

by on September 22, 2014

When I first started writing about San Francisco’s proposed soda tax back in January 2014, there wasn’t much public conversation about the idea, but now with Proposition E (Tax on Sugar Sweetened Beverages) on the ballot and the November election rapidly approaching, even the glossy lifestyle magazines are jumping in. The fact that Berkeley has its own version of a soda tax, Measure D, on their ballot for the upcoming election just ramps up the level of public discourse.

No community in the United States has ever succeeded in passing a soda tax, although many have tried, including the California communities of Richmond and El Monte in 2012. Big Soda has always proved itself willing to spend many millions of dollars, and take whatever steps are necessary, to defeat such measures.

For example, Berkeley blogger Elisa Batista reported recently that Big Soda had “blanket[ed] every single lamppost in downtown Berkeley with signs.” That certainly sounds like it could be a violation of section 20.04.020 of the Berkeley Municipal Code, which is aimed at “preventing a proliferation of signage from dominating the appearance of the area and creating visual clutter.” Perhaps Big Soda would rather ask for forgiveness than permission.

While the beverage industry is able to devote all of its considerable resources to defeating any attempt to limit sugary beverages, health advocates have never been able to raise sufficient funds to counter the myths and spin promoted by industry.

But this time around, social media is helping to level the playing field. People are starting to talk back to Big Soda, especially on Twitter, and the usual myths and spin are starting to unravel.

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Take Americans for Food and Beverage Choice (AFBC),for example, whose website explains “We believe that people can decide for themselves what they can eat and drink. Whether it’s a “soda tax”, or portion size restriction, government regulations won’t make people healthy—only diet, exercise and nutrition education can do that.”

It’s not surprising that AFBC would adopt that philosophy, given that their “partners” (read “funders”) include the American Beverage Association, the Corn Refiners Association, and the Sugar Association.

American Beverage Association spokesperson Chris Gindlesperger has reportedly explained that AFBC evolved from the ABA’s earlier coalition, called Americans Against Food Taxes, one of many astroturf organizations trying to make it appear that there is grassroots opposition among everyday folks against soda taxes, when in fact the efforts are driven by high powered advocacy firms paid for by the beverage industry.

The Twitter account @cartchoice belongs to AFBC. For months, they have been putting out a steady stream of tweets like “It’s nonsense to think politicians can legislate healthy lifestyles.” Busting myths like this is easy, and I’ve been talking back to @cartchoice all year (“Really? So legislation banning indoor smoking, requiring seat belts & motorcycle helmets does not = healthier? That’s nonsense.”)

Now lots of other people are doing it too, and thanks to the nature of Twitter and the ease of the “retweet”, a big audience is seeing Big Soda’s myths exploded as quickly as their PR machine can spin them out.

Want to get in on the fun? Other Twitter accounts that shill for the beverage industry include:

– the American Beverage Association’s own @AmeriBev

– the astroturf group No Berkeley Beverage Tax (“major funding provided by the American Beverage Association California PAC”) using the slightly misleading twitter handle @BerkeleyBevTax

– the even more misleadingly named astroturf group Affordable SF (“major funding by American Beverage Association California PAC”) tweeting as @NoSFBevTax

Californians for Food & Beverage Choice, another astroturf group “spearheaded by the American Beverage Association”, known on Twitter as @NoCAFoodBevTax.

Be forewarned, though – while most high profile representatives of the beverage industry are PR professionals who adhere to common business standards of respect and courtesy, sometimes the mask of “Open Happiness” that Big Soda usually wears slips a bit, revealing a less savory industry face.

You may get a response on Twitter from @cartchoice, but it will probably just restate their view that “studies show soda taxes are regressive and won’t work” or that “targeting a single source of calories for a tax is no solution.”

On the other hand, you might get a more belligerent response if you engage with the anonymous folks hiding behind the anti-tax @BerkeleyBevTax handle. I observed this account apparently bullying a woman who had expressed on Twitter some concern about the tactics being employed by the anti-tax side in Berkeley; it felt like @BerkeleyBevTax was trying to intimidate her into silence. Because bullying can only continue if good people sit on the sidelines and tolerate it, I responded, only to have @BerkeleyBevTax turn on me in a fashion so nasty that it provoked others to call them out as well.

If you find the prospect of being attacked by anonymous anti-soda tweeters too daunting, another great way to talk back to Big Soda is to post a campaign sign in your window, or on your front yard if you have one. The Berkeley vs Big Soda campaign’s website has a link right on the home page to download and print a window sign supporting Measure D, and campaign manager Sara Soka tells me that anyone who wants a yard sign “can email a lawn sign request – with their home address – to volunteer@berkeleyvsbigsoda.com, and a volunteer will bring one to their yard.” Easy! Yard signs can also be picked up at the campaign headquarters at 2225 Shattuck Ave.

In San Francisco, window signs for the Yes on E campaign can be printed out from the Choose Health SF website, and requests for yard signs can be made on the volunteer page.

For more on Measure D, the Berkeley sugary beverage tax, visit the Berkeley vs Big Soda website.

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For more on Proposition E, the SF sugary beverage tax, visit the Choose Health SF website.

For more on Big Soda’s take on the issue, including why they think anything that might discourage people from drinking liquid sugar all day long would be nothing short of the downfall of democracy, the civil rights issue of our time, the death of small business, and a hysterical, non-scientific approach to a “problem” that doesn’t exist, just look around you. The beverage industry is spending millions to get these messages out via every possible outlet, so that they are nearly impossible to avoid.

 

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.

 

 

Contributor

Dana Woldow

Dana Woldow advocates for policies, including soda taxes and better school meals, to improve the health of all children through better nutrition and education. She has been a leader in improving school food in San Francisco since 2002, when she formed a school nutrition group to run a pilot removing junk food from SFUSD's Aptos Middle School, where her children were students; the pilot was expanded to all of the city's public middle and high schools in 2003. She served as co-chair of the SFUSD Student Nutrition and Physical Activity Committee from October 2003 to June 2011.

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