Is Big Beverage acting like Big Tobacco when it comes to helping with healthcare costs?
In today’s “No Smoking” world, it may be hard to remember the time, not too long ago, when cigarette commercials ran regularly on TV and people were allowed to smoke practically anywhere they wanted to. Eventually, after decades of effort by public health advocates, the stranglehold of the tobacco industry’s lobbying efforts was broken, and soon the tobacco companies themselves were funding public health, anti-smoking campaigns through increased “sin taxes” levied on their product.
Public health officials have recently begun comparing their current fight against childhood obesity and the swigging of sweetened sodas, particularly by the young, to these fights of yesteryear with the tobacco companies. And, like in the old days, they are trying to raise funds to promote better health by way of placing a “sin tax” on soda.
In California, Assemblymember Bill Monning (D-Carmel) has proposed a one cent-per-ounce tax on sweetened beverages, including sodas, sports drinks and sweetened teas, in order to help pay for the healthcare costs incurred by the childhood obesity epidemic.
“Compared to the advertising budgets of the beverage industry, public health advocates are at real disadvantage,” Monning says, “and my bill is necessary to level the playing field a bit, [and] to fund physical education, nutrition and wellness programs in K-12th grades.” The soda tax would generate an estimated $1.7 billion a year to help fund physical fitness and anti-childhood obesity education programs that are now facing funding cuts.
The soft drink companies adamantly dismiss any comparison of their product with cigarettes, but the debate feels familiar—both sides accuse the other of “bad science” in the correlation of sweetened soft drink consumption and obesity, and the beverage industry has ramped up a very well funded advertising and lobbying campaign to defend against what it claims is unwarranted government intrusion into consumer choice, in which, again, young consumers figure prominently.
“This is an immediate public health crisis,” Monning said at a Feb. 17 press conference where he announced the bill, Assembly Bill 669. “It is fair to compare [the obesity crisis] to tobacco use and cancers. This bill doesn’t take any product away from the consumer. It starts to price it commensurate with the public health crisis it’s creating.”
Bob Achermann, executive director of the California/Nevada Soft Drink Association, rejects this likeness. “We think the comparison to tobacco is totally unfair,” he says. “There are so many differences, starting with the fact there is no safe level of tobacco use.”
According to the Centers for Disease Control, the number of obese children in the United States has more than tripled since 1980. Dr. Harold Goldstein of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA), a sponsor of Monning’s bill, reports that 56 percent of California adults and 28 percent of California children are currently overweight or obese.
The number of Americans suffering from diabetes rose by more than a million last year from the year before, for a total of more than 25 million Americans with diabetes. California has also seen a dramatic rise in chronic diseases like diabetes as a result of rampant obesity. According to Goldstein, diabetes and obesity-related diseases run up an estimated total of $41 billion in healthcare costs each year in California. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that taxpayers foot about half of these costs through Medicare and Medicaid.
“If current obesity trends are not reversed, half of all African-American and Latino children and one out of three Caucasian children born in the year 2000 will develop Type 2 diabetes in their lifetime,” Goldstein stated in a Feb. 17 press release about AB 669. “If we’re serious about curbing childhood obesity, we have to start with the biggest culprit. Soda is clearly one of, if not the leading, contributors to this epidemic.”
Industry representative Achermann says this claim is inaccurate. “There are so many factors influencing the onset of obesity that you simply cannot point to sweetened sodas as the primary culprit,” he says.
Early last year, the Obama administration indicated it might consider a soda tax to help fund healthcare reform, but the idea was dropped after intense lobbying by the beverage industry. As a pre-emptive strike against a national debate on soda taxes, “Americans Against Food Taxes,” a beverage industry front group, produced a TV ad featuring a middle-aged, ethnically ambiguous mother pushing a shopping cart through a grocery store. As she makes her way to the checkout stand, she pontificates about the dangers of big government trying to control what her family eats and drinks.
Joseph Thornley, a public relations expert and sponsor of the industry blog “ProPR,” says the names on the “About Us” page of the “Americans Against Food Taxes” website suggest the organization would be more accurately named the “Soft Drink Manufacturers/Retailers Opposed to a Tax on Sugar-Packed Soft Drinks.”
In a Feb. 17 web article about the widely run TV commercial, Thornley writes, “The whole thing smacks of disinformation and bad spin. Yes, the ad makes explicit reference to a tax on soft drinks, but look at everything else: the images of fresh fruit on the website home page, a grocery cart packed with wholesome food. … Take them all together and the uncritical viewer could easily think that there is a broader tax being proposed on all food.”
Responding to the beverage industry’s condemnation of “social engineering” by way of soda taxes, Monning refutes the industry’s claims that government has no role in influencing consumer choices, especially when taxpayers are footing a good part of the bill for healthcare costs.
“What we’re trying to do is in response to the millions of dollars of advertizing by the sweetened beverage industry targeted on young people,” Monning says. “That’s the real social engineering we’re trying to counter-balance. Remember, these beverages have zero nutritional value, and kids are constantly told it is ‘cool’ to drink them.”
According to the U.S. Senate disclosure database, the lobbying budget for the American Beverage Association ballooned from $1 million in 2006, 2007 and 2008, to a whopping $20 million in 2009.
In addition to lobbying efforts, Goldstein says the beverage industry’s immense marketing campaigns work against consumers. “We all agree that parents are the first line of defense against preventing obesity and diabetes. But at the same time, parents are facing enormous challenges. Beverage companies are spending $500 million a year in marketing,” Goldstein said in an interview last year about a similar tax proposed by California’s then Senate Majority Leader Dean Flores, which was stalled in committee.
Dr. Hugh Stallworth, Monterey County’s director of Public Health, says that “the deck is stacked against” the average consumer, and especially the low-income consumer, when it comes to making healthy food choices. This is due in large part to farm subsidies that encourage the over-production and low cost of corn, and the low cost of high fructose corn syrup used to sweeten many soda drinks, according to Stallworth.
“We have good research showing an overall 34 percent reduction in the inflation-adjusted price of sweetened, carbonated beverages between 1982 and 2008, and a corresponding 50 percent increase in the cost of fruits and vegetables over the same time period,” Stallworth says.
Dr. Stallworth agrees. “Unfortunately, when you only have a buck and half for lunch, junk food often tends to make sense,” he says. “And when you can get a super-sized soda with that as well, there’s an economic disincentive to changing behavior. Monning’s bill just helps unstack the deck a bit.”
According to many political commentators, the bill will face tough opposition in the tax-averse climate of Sacramento. “It may not even get out committee, like the previous bill sponsored by Dean Flores before it,” Stallworth says. “But if it does nothing else, it starts a long overdue discussion about the consumption of sweetened sodas and its contribution to the fatness of Americans.”
Photo caption: big gulp The American Beverage Association’s annual lobbying budget went from $1 million in 2006, 2007 and 2008 to $20 million in 2009, according to the U.S. Senate disclosure database. Photo by Keana Parker.