Industry unleashes millions to fight sugary drink tax

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

Joe Eaton of the Center for Public Integrity and Christine Spolar of the Huffington Post Investigative Fund look into how the threat of a tax on sugary drinks has mobilized major food interests and millions of dollars of lobbying power. Thanks in part to the limited earning potential of a low “sin tax” on sugary drinks and the presence of powerful senators with agriculture interests (Baucus has sugar beets, Grassley has corn) on the Finance Committee, such a tax has not yet been included in the major health reform proposals, though it’s an idea that has been getting some traction on Capitol Hill and in individual states.

Eaton and Spolar lay out the resources and players in the struggle, as it now stands:

During the first nine months of 2009, the industry groups stepped up their lobbying in Congress. They have spent more than $24 million on the issue of a national excise tax on sweetened beverages and on other legislative and regulatory issues, according to an examination of lobbying reports filed with the Senate Office of Public Records. The review shows that 21 companies and organizations reported that they lobbied specifically on the proposed tax on sugar-sweetened beverages — which among other things would include sodas, juice drinks and chocolate milk.

About $5 million of the money was spent on a national advertising campaign aimed at Capitol Hill lawmakers and promoting a newly formed coalition called Americans Against Food Taxes. The group bills itself on its website as a coalition of “responsible individuals, financially-strapped families, [and] small and large businesses” but its 400-plus membership list is dominated by industry heavyweights such as Burger King Corporation, Coca Cola, PepsiCo and Domino’s Pizza.

It may seem a bit silly to tax corn syrup and related sugars when the government is pouring billions in subsidies into corn production, but it appears that corn syrup is such a small part of the cost of manufacturing soda that the effect of the subsidies on the final cost is negligible.

Inside the soda marketing machine

While general terms may vary across the country, the same brand names dominate the soda business worldwide. To shed light on the marketing practices these companies use, AHCJ member Hilary Abramson put together Sugar Water Gets a Facelift: What Marketing Does for Soda, an extensive guide to the advertising of sugary drinks that was prepared for the Strategic Alliance’s Rapid Response Media Network and The California Endowment’s Healthy Eating, Active Communities program.

Doctors protest alliance with Coca-Cola Co.

Meanwhile, the American Academy of Family Physicians signed a six-figure deal with Coca-Cola that would “fund educational materials about soft drinks for the academy’s consumer health and wellness Web site.” While the Academy’s CEO says the soft drink maker will not influence the group’s public health messages, some doctors are highly critical of the deal, with some even quitting the organization over the matter. One doctor has started a Facebook group protesting the deal.

4 thoughts on “Industry unleashes millions to fight sugary drink tax

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  2. john papandrea

    The commercials with the heart rendering Mom complaining about taxes in general AND the potential to tax diet soda affecting her family is so infuriating. Shot against a backdrop of groceries or produce, it somehow suggests that food may be taxed next. Diet soda & juice drinks are not food. The website( is not supported by consumers but largely by beverage manufacturers, grocers and anti tax groups.
    Ironically, taxing diet soda and juice drinks would probably do a great deal to reduce health costs.

  3. Pingback: Reporters chronicle the death of a sugary drink tax : Covering Health

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