Big Soda steals tobacco's playbook to fight sugar tax

Big Soda steals tobacco's playbook to fight sugar tax

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By Liz Szabo, Kaiser Health News

In the run-up to the midterm elections, the soda industry has poured millions of dollars into fighting taxes on sugary drinks, an increasingly popular approach to combating obesity, which affects 40 percent of American adults.

Soda makers have campaigned against sugary drink taxes in dozens of cities in recent years, mostly successfully. But after a string of recent defeats, the industry is now pushing statewide measures that strip cities and towns of their ability to tax soda. Two of these state initiatives are on the ballot Tuesday in Washington and Oregon.

Arizona and Michigan already ban localities from enacting soda taxes. In California, where four cities have soda taxes, the beverage industry pressured lawmakers this summer into accepting a 12-year moratorium on local taxes on sugar-sweetened drinks. Some California lawmakers said they felt held “hostage” by the soda industry, which spent $7 million on a ballot initiative that would have made it much harder for cities to raise taxes of any kind. The beverage industry dropped the initiative after lawmakers agreed to the moratorium.

Soda makers also have cultivated close relationships with doctors, scientists and professional societies, including the Obesity Society and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Both groups say there is scant evidence that sugar taxes are effective.

Public health advocates say Big Soda is following a script perfected by the tobacco companies, which denied that their products were harmful and funded research that cast doubt on scientific studies while forcefully resisting taxes and regulations. Tobacco companies used their lobbying clout to persuade state lawmakers to prevent cities and counties from passing smoke-free ordinances. In 2006, 21 states pre-empted local smoke-free laws, according to Americans for Nonsmokers’ Rights. Even today, 13 states have some sort of ban on local smoke-free laws.

“There are definitely parallels with the tobacco industry,” said Betsy Janes, an activist with the American Cancer Society Cancer Action Network lobby. Soda makers “are happy to take a page from their playbook.”

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