Meet Big Soda — as Bad as Big Tobacco

The beverage industry is resorting to dirty tactics to prevent taxes on sugar-sweetened drinks

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Nearly 20 states or cities in the U.S. have considered or are considering the possibility of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), which I have supported for nearly two decades. SSBs are the single greatest source of added sugar in the American diet, and the research linking SSB intake with obesity and diabetes is stronger than for any other food or beverage category. The average American consumes 50 gallons of SSBs per year.

Adding a penny-per-ounce tax on any beverage with added sugar could not only help reduce obesity and its accompanying high health care costs, but would also generate much-needed revenue. The projected benefits estimated by economists are impressive: 10-23% reduced consumption, and $50 billion in health care savings and $150 billion in revenue over 10 years.

(MORE: Beating Butter: Denmark Imposes The World’s First Fat Tax)

This is not a fringe argument. A long list of organizations have called for reductions in SSB consumption including the World Health Organization, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Heart Association, Institute of Medicine and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In addition, cities around the United States have launched aggressive anti-soda campaigns.

But the beverage industry, dominated by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, and represented by the American Beverage Association, has exercised its might against this public health initiative in ways reminiscent of the tobacco industry when it came under attack in the 1950s. The beverage industry argues that such taxes are “discriminatory” in singling out one category of food, that taxes would not work, and that government should not tell people what to eat. The tobacco industry said taxes would not work (they did work — tremendously well) and that government should stay out of people’s choice to smoke.

Similar to tobacco companies, the soda industry has created a front group, Americans Against Food Taxes, to run anti-tax campaigns (a Super Bowl ad, for example). The name of the group implies a patriotic, grass roots movement, not a highly financed entity initiated and organized by industry. The tobacco industry paid scientists who did research disputing links between smoking and lung cancer, the addictive nature of nicotine, and the dangers of second-hand smoke. The soda industry funds scientists who reliably produce research showing no link between SSB consumption and health. The tobacco industry bought favor from community and national organizations by giving large donations. In an ironic twist, Coca Cola and PepsiCo are corporate sponsors of the American Dietetic Association.

(MORE: Study: Can a Soda Tax Help Curb Obesity?)

The soda industry hit a new low this year. In 2010, Philadelphia’s mayor and health commissioner had both supported an SSB tax and came within one vote of having the tax passed by the city council. In 2011, when the mayor made it clear he would reintroduce the tax, the industry created an organization called Foundation for a Healthy America, which gave a gift of $10 million to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia for research and prevention of childhood obesity. Would the hospital accept money from a tobacco company to study anti-smoking programs? The hospital tried to give some of the money to the city to run obesity programs through city health centers, but the mayor refused on the grounds it was funded by the beverage industry.

Over time, the tobacco companies were outed for their dirty tactics and the nation reacted with a series of public policies that cut smoking in half in the U.S. The beverage industry has been successful thus far in fighting off significant taxes through heavy lobbying, questionable tactics, and the attempt to appear public-health minded, but they, too, are likely to be embarrassed as light shines upon them. As they scramble to protect their profits, their actions may ultimately hurt their cause and pave the way for the very government actions they seek to prevent.