campaign desk

Who Will Be at the Table? Part XVI

Fighting a soda tax
October 12, 2009

During the campaign, Barack Obama promised his cheering crowds that, when he rolled up his sleeves to work on health care, he would have “insurance company representatives and drug company representatives at the table. They just won’t be able to buy every chair.” Now is the time to look at what kinds of seats special interest groups are having at Obama’s table and what they’re doing to bring the public around to their ways of thinking. This is the sixteenth of an occasional series of posts that will analyze their activities and how the media are covering them. The entire series is archived here.

Last week, The Coca-Cola Company ran a full-page ad in The Wall Street Journal. There’s nothing unusual, of course, about full-page corporate ads appearing in newspapers. This one, though, caught my eye, both for its tone and for its timing. It ran as part of a noisy back-and-forth about soda taxes as a means of subsidizing health coverage for the uninsured, a proposal the Associated Press reported was all but dead.

In the ad, Coca-Cola—whose products have come under fire for contributing to the obesity epidemic—said it would soon be listing the number of calories per serving and the number of servings on the front of all packages in the United States. (Coke entering the age of food labeling modernity after other companies have been doing that for years?) Next year the soft drink king would also introduce ninety-calorie slim cans. (Perhaps a throwback to the days of the pony bottles prevalent before cola creep brought its humongous offspring to the corner store?)

The ad said Coca-Cola had helped bring national school beverage guidelines to American schools and, starting three years ago, had voluntarily removed full-calorie sparkling beverages from schools. (Does that take the steam out of efforts to get all soda out of the schools, period?) The ad was pure image building, following up on one that the industry ran earlier this year, highlighting an agreement to gradually lower calories in beverages sold in schools.

The same day, the Journal ran an op-ed by the company’s CEO, Muhtar Kent, headlined “Coke Didn’t Make America Fat.” The op-ed was a blatant lobbying tactic, designed to appeal to politicians who might be inclined to tax Coke. Its message: It was unfair to single out Coke and slap heavy taxes on the beverage. Kent argued that “we need to take a hard look in the mirror and acknowledge that it’s not just about calories in. It’s also about calories out,” he wrote. He presented a bunch of facts, like how two states that tax soft drinks—West Virginia and Arkansas—still have the nation’s highest obesity rates. The money line came in the last paragraph:

Policy makers should stop spending their valuable time demonizing an industry that directly employs more than 220,000 people in the U.S., and through supporting industries, an additional three million.

Sign up for CJR's daily email

Appeal to jobs, a business lobbyist once told me. It works every time. Kent urged business and government to join forces to encourage increased physical activity and sensible eating and drinking, “while allowing Americans to enjoy the simple pleasure of a Coca-Cola.”

A couple days later, a very effective commercial that also mentioned the pleasure of sipping a soft drink appeared on ABC. A bodiless hand snatches away ice cream, pie, hot dogs, and soda from people who seemed to be slim. A little boy cries. A man is taken aback when his soda is pushed out of his hand. “Everywhere you turn,” says the narrator, “Somebody is telling us what we can’t eat. It’s getting harder just to enjoy a soft drink.” The narrator ends with: “Find out who’s driving the food police at”

Was the soda tax being actively considered as a revenue source to finance health reform? I was puzzled: The AP had reported in mid-September that the Baucus blueprint did not call for a soda tax; neither did the bills coming out of the House of Representatives. The AP noted that a “golden opportunity for enacting a national soda tax apparently slipped away” when the Senate Finance Committee didn’t include it in its draft.

Thursday, The Oregonian offered its readers a comprehensive account of the soda saga, warning that the tax may still come up in debate. “I don’t think it’s at all settled,” said Oregon senior senator Ron Wyden. Kevin Keane, a vice-president at the American Beverage Association, told reporter Charles Pope that “You’re not going to solve the complexities of health care reform and obesity with a tax on soda pop.”

The soda companies, clever marketers that they are, want to ensure they will escape blame for the obesity scourge, and that there will be no tax on pop that might deter consumers from buying it. So a front group, the Center for Consumer Freedom, has been running the food police ads which reinforce the lobbying messages of Coca-Cola’s heavy hitters. The group’s Web site claims it promotes personal responsibility and protects consumer choices. “We believe the consumer is King. And Queen,” it says.

The Center says that more than one hundred companies and thousands of individual consumers contribute to its financing. According to Source Watch, the group has previously received money from food companies and restaurants such as Coca-Cola, Cargill, Tyson Foods, Wendy’s, Applebee’s, Outback Steakhouse, and Monsanto. The Center has also been active in waging campaigns against the anti-obesity movement, and has worked to rebut claims that link obesity to junk foods.

The group clearly admits that it is biased:

Yes! We believe that only you know what’s best for you. When activists try to force you to live according to their vision of society, we don’t take it lying down.

It’s equally clear that the group is not lying down, and here’s where the press comes in. Apparently, one of its tactics is to place op-eds and letters to the editor in strategic newspapers. In September, the Detroit Free Press published an anti-soda tax op-ed, identifying the author, J. Justin Wilson, as a senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom—a “nonprofit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies, and consumers to promote personal responsibility and protect consumer choices.” A week or so later, the New York Daily News ran a similar op-ed and similarly identified Wilson and his group. A separate Daily News news story, which featured a quote from Wilson, said the center “gets money from food and beverage companies.”

But the Baltimore Sun slipped up. About the same time as the op-eds appeared, the Sun ran a letter to the editor penned by Wilson, arguing that the soda tax shouldn’t be used to punish people for the food they choose. The paper identified Wilson as a senior research analyst at the Center for Consumer Freedom. Sounds kind of benign, doesn’t it?

If media outlets choose to accept op-eds and letters from outfits like this, full disclosure please.

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for CJR's Covering the Health Care Fight. She also blogs for Health News Review and the Center for Health Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.