Soda tax critics fight early

While much of the news attention regarding health issues has focused on healthcare reform, the idea of a soda tax, applied to sugar-sweetened drinks, is slowly moving from a fringe issue to a noticeable concern for the country's largest beverage companies.

While much of the news attention regarding health issues has focused on healthcare reform, the idea of a soda tax, applied to sugar-sweetened drinks, is slowly moving from a fringe issue to a noticeable concern for the country's largest beverage companies.

The American Beverage Association (ABA) launched the first wave of an advertising campaign in July to address early concerns about a soda tax, following a recommendation from the Senate Finance Committee that taxes from sugared drinks could be used to help fund healthcare reform.

This week, Coca-Cola said in a statement that it was preparing a campaign to educate the public about the efforts it has taken to counter obesity. The effort's messaging will also focus on why a tax will not help solve problems in healthcare or the obesity crisis.

While no legislation has been proposed, communications leaders say that the industry is taking the right steps to ensure that its voice is not only heard, but that it is the loudest and the one that resonates most with consumers and lawmakers.

“If you're not the first to paint the picture for consumers, then others will do it for you,” says Gene Grabowski, SVP of Levick Strategic Communications. “One of the advantages that industry has is if they do get out in front of the issue and paint the picture first, it will be difficult for Congress or someone in the government to be able to create an effective picture that can counter it.”

Issues like menu labeling and reports about child obesity have created a climate in Washington that may seem more receptive to the idea of a soft-drink tax, says Nancy Glick, SVP and director of food and health affairs for MS&L Worldwide.

The main proponents behind a tax include the Center for Science in the Public Interest, health advocates, and some lawmakers, including President Barack Obama, who told Men's Health, “It's an idea that we should be exploring.”

But, Glick adds, the focus on financial services, economic recovery, and healthcare reform will create an uphill battle for advocates of such legislation, especially because of who the taxes will affect. 

“Our message is simple,” says Kevin Keane, SVP of public affairs for the ABA. “In this economy, in these times, the last thing Congress should be doing is looking to raise taxes on middle-class families.”

He notes that it has been challenging to speak with the media about the issue because there has not been a formal proposal, but the trade group sees the importance in educating the public now to remain engaged in the discussion.

The ABA also created a coalition called Americans Against Food Taxes. It is made up of beverage companies, minority groups, trade associations, unions, and restaurant chains. A microsite provides access for consumers to contact lawmakers.

“The fact that we engaged right away has been the key to our success to this point,” Keane says. “And continued engagement is going to be essential to any kind of ultimate success.”

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