Michele Simon, “Taking on Big Soda over Taxes: Lessons Learned from Fighting Big Alcohol,” Corporations and Health Watch Newsletter, April 2010
“Whether it’s the food industry, tobacco, or alcohol, they all use the same talking points and lobbying strategies,” opines the Marin Institute’s Michele Simon in this April 2010 article that likens “Big Soda” to the alcohol lobby. Simon draws on her experience as a research and policy director to claim that soft drinks are more analogous to alcohol than tobacco, noting that “the message is more about cutting down.” She thus offers six “lessons” for taking on industry in the fight over soft drink taxation.
In particular, Simon advises consumer advocates to resist assertions that (i) “soda doesn’t cause obesity or that taxes won’t work”; (ii) “a penny per ounce tax will cause massive job loss”; and (iii) companies “care about poor people and working families.” She provides several strategies for refuting what she describes as industry misrepresentation and manipulation of data on these points. For example, she maintains that evidence questioning the link between soft drink consumption and obesity is “easily countered by showing those studies… tend to be funded by industry, big surprise.” In addition, she urges legislators and policymakers to consider the power of opinion polling, which in the case of alcohol allegedly demonstrated the public’s “overwhelming” support for taxation and provided some political cover for tax proponents.
Simon also calls on her fellow crusaders to (i) “index all excise taxes to inflation”; (ii) block “preemption at the state or federal level”; and (iii) “be prepared for the long haul.” Citing the alcohol industry’s success in preempting local initiatives, her action plan emphasizes that cities and counties need “to retain the right to assess local taxes and fees as they see fit.” Moreover, according to Simon, a federal soda tax that preempts state laws “would be a disaster and makes no sense from a state-rights or public health perspective.”
Warning readers of such Pyrrhic victories, Simon predicts that soda taxation is likely to be incremental and ongoing. As she concludes, “Public health advocates will have to decide if the enormous resources it will take to succeed are ultimately worth spending decades fighting on taxes, or if other policies, such as reducing corn subsidies, would be more effective.”