Disappointed but undaunted. It would be easy to languish in the loss of a hard-fought effort to pass a sugary drink tax in Santa Fe. But this loss will become a distant memory as more and more cities and states continue to pass this policy. The negative impacts of added sugars on health and wellness are not going away. We are steadily reminded of the urgency to address the real public health impacts of sugary drinks. For example, a study released in April found that:
"Sugary drinks accounted for 7.4 percent of all cardiometabolic deaths, and higher percentages of coronary heart disease and diabetes deaths (10.8 and 14.8 percent, respectively.)… Sugary drinks accounted for more deaths than any other dietary factor among adults less than 44 years old. Sugary drinks also accounted for almost twice as many deaths among blacks (12.6 percent, the leading factor) compared to whites (6.4 percent)."
Over the last few weeks we have been consulting with allies on the ground in Santa Fe who provided firsthand accounts and insights about the factors that were likely influential to the outcome of the vote. Motivated by the reality of the public health impacts of sugary drinks and supported by science, we will use what we learn from Santa Fe to combat industry attempts to sell unhealthy sugary drinks at the expense of public health in pursuit of the almighty dollar.
A closer look at the Big Soda campaign in Santa Fe
Let’s examine what Big Soda told voters that seemed to affect voter sentiment toward the sugary beverage tax campaign.
What Big Soda said – “Elite” out-of-state forces were coming to Santa Fe to tell voters what to do. Former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg spent more than a million dollars on the anti-sugary drink campaign. Industry spun a backlash against an out-of-state philanthropist seeking to support causes in Santa Fe, even if his motivation is supporting public health and community-driven investment.
A closer look – The American Beverage Association, headquartered in Washington, D.C., is the original outsider. It parachuted in, feigning support for pre-K and concern about adverse economic impacts of a tax, and then disappeared after the campaign – doing nothing to address the ongoing need to support pre-K in Santa Fe. The trade association, funded primarily by Coke and Pepsi, spent at least $1.5 million dollars against the Santa Fe advocates, and brought in outside political operatives to run its campaign. We need to work harder to remind voters that Big Soda’s profits are strengthened at the expense of community health. We need to spotlight industry spending and tactics and call out its role as an outsider running campaigns to beat back taxes and block communities from meeting important local needs - all in the interest of protecting its own bottom line. Campaign spending is a minor investment for the industry compared to the hundreds of millions of dollars that Big Soda spends marketing to children and teens to increase their consumption of unhealthy sugary drinks.
What Big Soda did – Industry-funded, anti-tax media buyers moved quickly to purchase radio and TV ads, benefitting from the speed at which private industry can move, as contrasted by the lengthier time it takes philanthropic and public interest groups to mobilize. While a single industry trade group motivated by profit can move very nimbly, a coalition of diverse voices and opinions takes more time. Industry ended up setting the terms of public discourse by jumping in ahead of advocates. Advocates were forced into a reactive rather and proactive stance.
A closer look – The industry took advantage of two important factors that contributed to the election outcome – speed and message. Early on, the anti-tax campaign cast doubt about the effectiveness of using a sugary beverage tax to support pre-K for more kids in Santa Fe. By positing that there was, “a better way” to support early learning for children, Big Soda changed the debate from one that was about public health, to one about education funding. In doing so, they were able to give undecided voters a reason to vote against the tax. While the facts are on our side - we know from Philadelphia, for example, that a tax on sugary drinks is already generating revenue for expanding early learning within communities that need these programs the most – we need to be focused and disciplined about our message and red herring arguments the other side tries to introduce. Industry has ceded the health debate – other messages they pushed out included ones we’ve seen before on supposed economic impacts, regressivity, declining revenues from tax making it unsuitable as a long-term funding source, and anti-government rhetoric.
Going forward, we should also be prepared for the industry’s campaign to strike quickly. The ability to rapidly secure highly-effective tools (e.g. TV and radio advertising, social media) to raise awareness about the proposed tax within a negative framework jumpstarted the anti-tax campaign. Local advocates and funders need to coalesce around a shared communications strategy early. Advocates need to drive the narrative while remaining nimble enough to respond to the communications needs as they play out on the ground. Besides pushing out the benefits of a revenue source for programs that residents support, we should underscore the profit motivations of Big Soda to make it more difficult to distract voters, who are smart people with busy lives, from recognizing what’s really at stake: profits from pushing sugar and threats to public health.
What Big Soda did – The local political environment is a factor in any campaign. A budget surplus in Santa Fe was a nice foil for the anti-tax team who claimed it was proof that extra funds were not needed for pre-K programs for low-income children.
A closer look – Unfortunately, the surplus turned out to be far smaller than expected ($1.2 million). Most importantly, a one-time surplus could never cover the cost of ongoing pre-K for approximately 1,000 kids each year – a continuing source of funding was needed. In the future, it will be important to underscore the dual benefits of revenue from sugary drink taxes and the goal of reducing the burden of diabetes, obesity, heart disease and poor oral health.
What Big Soda did – The industry also leveraged Santa Fe’s cultural diversity against the tax. By positioning the tax as one that favored the priorities of white elites and ignored the cultural preferences of Hispanics, the industry divided a community at the expense of public health.
A closer look– Big Soda will stop at nothing to protect its profits – including unearthing and manipulating any race and class tensions for its own gain. It targets marketing to vulnerable populations, and media analyses prove that youth of color are exposed to more sugary drink advertising than their white peers. It’s no accident that black and Latino youth in the U.S. are more likely to develop diabetes than white youth.
The End Game is What Counts
Campaigns are comprised of strategy and tactics carefully plotted to maximize public persuasion like a game of chess. But diseases like diabetes and heart disease are not a game. As we look to the campaign battles ahead, we should keep the key findings of Santa Fe top-of-mind:
- Start early and move nimbly to define the ground on which we have any debate.
- Emphasize Big Soda’s track record of putting profits above public health.
- Reflect community values (best revealed in qualitative research) in core messages and messengers along with highlighting the quantitative policy benefits of the tax, and avoid engaging in red herring fallacies.
The hundreds of millions of dollars spent by beverage companies marketing sugary drinks to American families, disproportionately targeting African Americans and Latinos, are real and drive health inequities. Big Soda has a lot riding on sugary drinks and it will pull out all the stops to make sure that the calculation people make in the ballot box is complicated by plenty of variables, political nuance and distracting information.
But make no mistake. At the core of any debate about sugary drink taxes is the health and wellness of a person that could be you, your parent, your child or your friend. Our allies in New Mexico remain committed to supporting pre-K and lessons learned in Santa Fe can help us make our case stronger and better in the months and years ahead.