Big Soda Spends Millions On 'Unethical' San Francisco Area Ads Fighting Drink Taxes

The beverage industry is vastly outspending those who support taxes on sugary drinks.

SAN FRANCISCO — The beverage industry is spending millions to fight Bay Area proposals that would tax sugary drinks. Meanwhile, vastly outspent supporters of soda taxes are wielding new data they say shows taxes reduce consumption of drinks linked to childhood obesity and diabetes.

As the region once again becomes a battleground over soda and sugary drinks, residents in San Francisco, Oakland and the small city of Albany will vote separately in November on proposals that would add a 1-cent per ounce tax on sweetened beverages.

The well-funded beverage industry has reserved roughly $9.5 million in television ad time before Election Day, and has already spent $1 million on commercials in the Bay Area, Joe Arellano, a spokesman for groups opposing taxes, told HuffPost.

That could be trouble for soda tax supporters, who complain that the industry has bombarded voters with dishonest messages. Recent campaign spending reports showed the industry had spent $747,267 in Oakland, for example, compared with $23,297 by tax proponents.

Oakland voters have received multiple mailings that label the soda tax proposition a “grocery tax” that will raise prices across the board at supermarkets. Instead of hitting shoppers with a steep increase only on sugary drinks, commercials featuring local shopkeepers say they’ll spread the cost around to staples like milk, bread and produce.

“It’s an incredibly painful and unethical lie,” said Oakland Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan. “People worry about having to pay for their groceries. To threaten that their groceries are going to be taxed when it’s not true is a totally despicable tactic from the soda industry.”

There’s nothing untrue about it, according to Arellano. “Those businesses have shown repeatedly that they will pass on those costs to their consumers,” he said.

Elected officials in Oakland, led by Vice Mayor Annie Campbell-Washington, vowed in July to fight Big Soda’s commercials and mailings by filing complaints with the Federal Communications Commission and the city’s Public Ethics Commission. Her office ignored repeated inquiries from HuffPost about whether the threat was carried out.

FCC and Public Ethics Commission spokesmen told HuffPost they had no open investigations into the “grocery tax” campaigns, but were barred from saying whether they had received any complaints about them.

Berkeley became the first city in the U.S. to impose a soda tax in 2014. An attempt that year in San Francisco failed to gain the two-thirds majority needed to become law. This year’s measure requires a simple majority of San Franciscans because of a modification in how tax revenue would be spent. Philadelphia became the biggest city to enact a soda tax in June.

An encouraging sign to Bay Area soda tax supporters is that Berkeley’s tax is having a greater impact than initially expected.

Consumption of soda, energy drinks and other taxed items fell by 21 percent in some neighborhoods after the tax took effect, according to research published Tuesday in the American Journal of Public Health. That’s double the 10 percent drop researchers had expected, according to Pat Crawford, a University of California-Berkeley professor.

Shoppers reported drinking 63 percent more water, according to surveys from a team led by University of California-Berkeley researchers. At the same time, consumers in Oakland and San Francisco increased their consumption of soda and other sweet beverages by 4 percent, researchers found.

The tax “is the single most important way” to deter people from drinking too much soda or iced tea, said Crawford.

Arellano, the soda industry spokesman, said the study was flawed. Survey participants in Berkeley had higher incomes and education levels than counterparts in Oakland and San Francisco, factors that may account for different behavior, he said.

Barry Popkin, a University of North Carolina professor who supports soda taxes as a tool to improve public health, said the income and education levels of Berkeley residents may produce larger results than in cities with different demographics.

Benefits like less tooth decay and weight gain would appear several years after launching a tax, Popkin said. Changes would be more dramatic if the taxes were higher, he said.

Other attempts to steer people away from soda are underway in the Bay Area.

A law that would require warning labels in advertising for sugary drinks, similar to warnings on cigarette ads, was supposed to take effect in San Francisco on July 25, but is tied up in court. It’s the first such law in the country.

“We know we’re at the front lines here and we know what the stakes are,” said Larry Tramutola, a consultant organizing support for the taxes in San Francisco and Oakland. “The soda industry is doing everything they can to try and defeat these.”

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