Soda Tax


Beverage Companies Blur Line Between Philanthropy & Marketing

Some soda companies have begun using cause marketing to curry public favor in the face of criticism. (La Piazza Pizzeria/Flickr)

If you were watching the Superbowl in 2010 when the Packers beat the Steelers, you may have noticed that Pepsi commercials were absent from the ads that were vying for the attention of millions of viewers. Instead, Pepsi announced Pepsi Refresh, a project to take the $20 million dollars it would have spent on Superbowl advertising and give it to a good cause. They used a vast social media campaign to involve the public in voting for which cause would get the money.

Pepsi’s good deed did put $20 million dollars into the hands of organizations working to solve global problems, but Pepsi got something back too — loyal consumers. The campaign was a splashy example of a new strategy called “cause marketing” that plays off a growing trend of corporate social responsibility. But this money comes directly out of Pepsi’s brand marketing budget, not their philanthropy arm.

“There are some really revealing statements in the industry literature from executives at Pepsi saying very explicitly what they were trying to do,” explained Lori Dorfman, Director of the Berkeley Media Studies Group. “And one of the things they were trying to do is get the attention of and favorability of millennials,” she added.

Dorfman and her colleagues have been digging into the nitty-gritty of the beverage industry to draw comparisons between the marketing strategies of big tobacco and those of soda companies, who have recently come under attack for the role their sugary product is playing in rising obesity rates.

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Richmond Voters Will Decide on “Soda Tax”

(Rex Sorgatz: Flickr)

(Rex Sorgatz: Flickr)

The people of Richmond will decide in November whether businesses should have to pay a fee for every ounce of sugar-sweetened drinks they sell. In other words, a soda tax is on the ballot November 6th. If voters approve the measure, Richmond would be the first city in California to impose such a fee.

“The city of Richmond has the opportunity to make history,” Harold Goldstein of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy told me today, adding that the campaign will be closely watched nationally. “Cities and states will be watching this across the country. … They too want to put a small tax on sugary drinks and use those funds to mitigate the harmful effects that all these sugary drinks are causing.”

Debate stretched more than four hours at last night’s City Council meeting to determine whether to put two related measures on the ballot. In addition to the penny-per-ounce business license fee, a second measure asks voters if they wish the money to be directed to obesity prevention programs. The measure is an advisory one. If voters approve the new fee, the money it generates goes into the general fund. Richmond’s finance director estimates the fee will generate from $4 million to $8 million for city coffers. Continue reading

The Greatest Health Risk to Children? No, It’s Not Drugs

(Ian Britton: Flickr)

People polled cited unhealthy eating habits and sedentary lifestyle as greatest threat to children's health. (Ian Britton: Flickr)

Nearly half of people surveyed in a poll released today say an unhealthy diet combined with lack of physical activity are the greatest health risks facing California children today.

In addition, almost three in four respondents to the Field Poll — 73 percent — said prevention efforts, while starting with the family, must extend to the broader community, including health care providers, schools, community organizations and beyond — to food and beverage companies and fast food restaurants.

“Voters acknowledge they have a role to play,” Mark DeCamillo, Director of The Field Poll told me. “They should be involving the larger community and lots of different entities, companies included should be taking some responsibility in reducing obesity in kids.

The poll surveyed 1,000 registered California voters and was funded by The California Endowment. (The California Endowment is a supporter of KQED). Respondents across political parties, ethnic backgrounds and household incomes all agreed a poor diet and sedentary lifestyle are the major health risks to children. Illegal drug use was a distant second at 22 percent.

More than half of respondents (60 percent) said that the neighborhood where a child is raised makes a difference in their health. A strong majority (68 percent) said a comprehensive program to prevent childhood obesity — including building parks and promoting neighborhood safety — would be worth it, even if it cost billions of dollars.

“Californians understand that health happens in schools, in neighborhoods, and with prevention,” said Dr. Robert Ross, CEO of The California Endowment, said in a statement. “Regardless of age, ethnicity, income or political ideology, they recognize that investments in prevention save money over the long run.”

Support for “soda tax” Continue reading

Soda Tax: What Can a Penny Do?

(Rex Sorgatz: Flickr)

(Rex Sorgatz: Flickr)

We’ve seen it with tobacco. As taxes went up, use went down. Public health advocates have been salivating over the prospect of a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages to gain a similar foothold in the obesity epidemic and the myriad health problems excess weight causes. But hard evidence on the health effects of such a tax has been limited.

A new study in today’s Health Affairs, quantifies the impact quite nicely. A nationwide penny-per-ounce tax, the authors estimate, would reduce sugar-sweetened beverage consumption by 15 percent. They say that modest reduction will lead to modest weight loss, which in turn leads to modest reductions in diabetes. After the researchers crunched all the numbers, all those modest reductions would, over ten years, result in 26,000 lives saves (or avoiding “premature deaths” as researchers prefer to say).

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Could Richmond Be First California City to Tax Soda?

Price going up? (Karen Blumberg: Flickr)

Price going up? (Karen Blumberg: Flickr)

Last night the Richmond City Council voted to let the people decide. The Council instructed staff to prepare a ballot measure for next November to tax sugar-sweetened beverages, what most people call a “soda tax.”

Richmond voters may have the chance to make their city the first in California, and one of the first in the country, to slap a special tax not just on sodas, but also sports drinks, energy drinks, fruit-flavored drinks and the like. 100 percent fruit juice and diet drinks would not be affected.

The goals are twofold. If the drinks cost more, people will drink fewer of them. Plus, taxes generate revenue, which the City Council says it would devote to new sports fields and other health programs. The motivation for the tax is childhood obesity. Wendel Brunner, Public Health Director of the Contra Costa Health Department walked people through the makings of what has become an epidemic.

  • 32 percent of school children in Richmond are obese
  • 24 percent of adults in Richmond are obese
  • 11 percent of all deaths in Richmond are linked to obesity–obesity is shortening people’s lives by years
And, if childhood obesity goes unchecked in Richmond, Contra Costa Health researchers found, the percentage of obese adults will almost double from the current 24 percent to 42 percent. 
“The thing about sugar-sweetened beverages is that the calories are insidious.”
So, what’s the connection to sugar-sweetened beverages? It comes from Brunner’s most jaw-dropping number: the average Richmond teenager who drinks sugary beverages every day consumes a whopping 150,000 calories a year–just from these sweetened drinks. That adds up to 20-30 pounds of additional weight over the year. As Brunner reported, it’s those sweet drinks that are driving the obesity epidemic. “The thing about sugar-sweetened beverages is that the calories are insidious,” he says, “so you consume a Big Gulp, you don’t realize that you’ve drunk about 350 calories.” Continue reading