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Industry Influenced News Coverage of Calif. Soda Tax Proposals, Study Finds


It wasn’t much of a surprise that the soda industry opposed ballot measures that would have instituted sugar-sweetened beverage taxes in the California cities of Richmond and El Monte. But a new study reports that along with publicly opposing the taxes, the soda industry spent millions of dollars to infiltrate news stories about the proposed tax — all while camouflaging its identity.

Our friends at the Berkeley Media Studies Group analyzed news articles and industry publications from November 2011 to January 2013, finding that the industry recruited “a broad range of community spokespeople” to voice opposition to the proposed taxes. Many of these spokespeople, who included pastors and politicians, received industry funding (but were not identified as being connected to industry).

“The soda industry’s thumbprint was all over the news coverage,” Pamela Mejia, BMSG researcher and lead author of the study, said in a statement. “But they hid behind business owners, religious leaders and other community residents to give the illusion that the proposals self-destructed.”

BSMG will join the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity to discuss the study during a special tweet chat at 1 p.m. Eastern on Thursday, March 6. Use the hashtag #SodaTaxNews to take part.

While the two proposals were ultimately voted down, lawmakers in other cities and jurisdictions have introduced similar measures in an effort to combat obesity. Perhaps not surprisingly, the industry is repeating its tactics in San Francisco and other places trying to pass a tax on sugary drinks, Mejia added.

Researchers found that the beverage industry funded “highly visible local anti-tax groups” in both Richmond and El Monte. These coalition groups included “a broad swath of the community,” including public officials, local business owners, doctors, African American leaders, prominent residents and religious leaders.

Speakers from these organizations were often quoted in the news criticizing the tax, but without industry affiliations.

In addition, the industry exploited existing class-based tensions and portrayed the tax as financially damaging to poor residents, BSMG reports. In Richmond, the industry also claimed the tax was “a ‘racist ploy’ that would ‘marginalize people of color.’”

That tactic in particular is noteworthy because the industry has historically targeted low-income communities with unhealthy food and beverage marketing, said study co-author Andrew Cheyne.

“The soda industry knows that word is getting out about the role sugary drinks play in diabetes and other diseases,” Cheyne said in a statement. “That’s why it fought these taxes so hard and will continue to do so in other cities.”

Click here to read the full report.