by William Harless, California Watch
Groups aligned with the soda industry already have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars as Richmond prepares to vote on raising taxes on sweetened drinks an extra penny an ounce. Since the spring, tax opponents have outspent supporters almost 10 to 1, new financial records show.
The American Beverage Association, a Washington, D.C., trade organization that represents PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and other major beverage companies, has spent $150,000 to fight the soda tax measure since June, according to recently released campaign finance disclosures.
The Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, the beverage association-backed organization created to defeat the tax, spent an additional $200,000, according to campaign finance records. The money is going largely to political consulting, attorney, and polling and research firms. Almost $60,000 was earmarked for outdoor advertising.
Meanwhile, another organization has entered the fray to support the tax. The California Center for Public Health Advocacy, a nonprofit group with offices in Oakland, Davis and Los Angeles, has spent about $21,600 on polling and focus groups.
Richmond City Council Member Jeff Ritterman, a cardiologist who is leading the campaign for the sweetened-beverage tax, said he believes soda drinkers will start to turn to tap water, saving money and drinking something healthier. He said the American Beverage Association is worried that Richmond will set a trend.
“I think they’re quite aware that if these dominoes begin to fall, a lot more will,” he said, referring to the two California cities, Richmond and El Monte, in Los Angeles County, that are considering penny-per-ounce sweetened-beverage taxes, which would be the first of their kind in the United States.
Ritterman and a handful of Bay Area residents have raised about $10,400 for their own campaign, dubbed Richmond Fit for Life, and have sent out brochures and mailers advocating for the tax, outlining obesity statistics and describing how it and a companion health measure are phrased on the November ballot.
The Richmond City Council voted to place the soda tax on the November ballot. Ritterman estimates the measure would raise $3 million a year, which advocates want to use for obesity programs, school fruit and vegetable gardens, and playing fields. The tax would apply to soft drinks and other beverages with added sugar.
Opponents of the soda tax point out that the ballot measure does not guarantee the new money would be spent on health measures, though supporters say they have enough pledges from City Council members to ensure it would be.
“Our campaign activities are and will continue to be focused on helping voters cut through the false claims of the tax backers,” Chuck Finnie, a vice president of the San Francisco public relations firm Barnes Mosher Whitehurst Lauter & Partners, which is working on the campaign to defeat the tax, said in a statement. “They say the measure is intended to fight obesity but they know not one thin dime is being raised specifically for new public health, recreation and other anti-obesity programs.”
Both sides have sent out mailers, including one by the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes that irked soda-tax supporter Tom Butt, a Richmond City Council member. Last week, he sent a complaint to the city’s attorney claiming the mailer didn’t contain the specific disclosure, as Butt said city law requires: “Major funding from large out-of-city contributors.”
“Although the BS (Big Soda) campaign is free to use the rest of the mailer to imply that this was paid for by local interests, it is not free to do that in the part of the mailer where the disclosure is required,” Butt wrote, forwarding this complaint to his constituents in an e-mail.
The brochure does mention American Beverage Association funding at its bottom. And Finnie said the city’s requirement for disclosing out-of-city contributions applies to independent expenditure committees, not campaigns against specific ballot measures like the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes.
“It is Councilmen Butt and Ritterman who are misleading voters,” Finnie said. “They are misleading voters by failing to acknowledge the so-called soda tax is going to raise the cost of living on everyone, not just on consumers of sugar-sweetened beverages and certainly not just on soda drinkers.”
William Harless is a journalist with California Watch.