Op-ed: How Big Soda tried to buy my political soul

I am a strong supporter of Measure D, the sugary beverage tax, but recently I was recruited to help the No on D campaign. In exchange for my participation, I received $100 and a behind-the-scenes look at what the single largest political contribution in Berkeley’s history is paying for.

This is how it happened: at the beginning of September, I received a telephone call from a company called Nichols Research located in Fresno. They offered me money to take part in a two-hour focus group on Berkeley ballot measures. Would I be interested? Sure, I said.

A couple of weeks later, I joined two dozen or so other Berkeley voters at the Marina DoubleTree Inn. We were each given a hand-held digital gadget and asked to record our reactions to a series of television advertisements. Although Nichols Research originally implied we would be discussing a variety of measures, this pretense was dropped as soon as the ads began to roll. The study was about only one thing: how to defeat Measure D.

As I watched the advertisements and twirled the knob on my survey device, I felt increasingly ill-at-ease. Tiny print at the bottom of each commercial read “Paid for by the American Beverage Association,” which almost certainly also footed the bill for our $100 compensation. Every time I indicated my like or dislike of an ad, I was giving the soda companies more ammunition in their fight against a measure I strongly believe in and it felt wrong — more like an exercise in buying and selling political souls than democracy.

Beyond this transactional aspect, though, the advertisements themselves were troubling. Slick and over-produced, the 30-second spots were cynical, aimed at obfuscating the issue rather than informing voters. Over and over, participants in the focus group expressed frustration that watching the ads left them feeling more confused than before.

And no wonder. The arguments for Measure D are simple and compelling: sugary beverages are causing skyrocketing rates of diabetes, and a tax on soda distributors can discourage sales while simultaneously generating funds for much needed nutritional programs for our families and kids. It’s a model that has been used time and again in public health to mitigate the harms of legal substances like alcohol and tobacco with great success. From a public health perspective, it’s a no-brainer, which is why to my knowledge not a single public health expert has come out against the measure.

Faced with such an overwhelming prima facie case for Measure D, soda companies are rightfully scared. If Measure D passes, they won’t just make less money in Berkeley, but in every community that follows in our footsteps. But greed is not a viable argument with voters, so Big Soda has had to resort to a campaign of confusion, launching a barrage of technical objections against the measure in the hope of finding something — anything — that will stick.

Based on my sneak peek, the television blitz the soda industry is about to run in Berkeley has very little to do with what the measure is actually about. Here are their arguments followed by the reasons why they are wrong.

  1. Voters cannot trust the Berkeley City Council to spend the tax revenue from Measure D on nutrition programs because the money will go into the general fund.

This cynical view just doesn’t match reality. The City Council is beholden to voters and, since voters want the money to go toward health education and healthy food access programs, it will. Moreover, Measure D creates a panel of public health experts to make recommendations to guide the City Council’s funding decisions about public health policy.

  1. Measure D has too many exemptions.

Again, not true. The exemptions are not arbitrary, but reasoned exclusions based on genuine public health considerations. Specifically, milk-based beverages (including chocolate milk and mochas) are exempt because they contain healthy fats and proteins while other sugar-added beverages, like regular soda, have no redeeming nutritional value. 100% juices are exempt because the sugars they contain are naturally-occurring, not added. Finally, diet sodas are exempt because they do not contain added sugar.

  1. Measure D unfairly punishes low-income communities by raising the price of popular beverages.

Wrong. Measure D is not a regressive sales tax, but a carefully-crafted tax on distributors. Rather than punishing consumers, it can generate funds for nutritional education programs designed to guide the public in making healthier choices. Perhaps the best evidence that Measure D will help, not hurt, low-income families though is the staggeringly long list of endorsers representing their interests, including the Berkeley NAACP, Healthy Black Families, Latinos Unidos de Berkeley, and Xavier Morales (Executive Director of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California).

When the focus group ended, I was thanked and given a white envelope containing a crisp, new $100 bill for my services. The money was green, but it felt like 20 pieces of silver. So, I did the one thing that could purge me of my sins, driving directly to the Yes on Measure D headquarters on Shattuck Avenue. “After what I saw tonight, you need this a lot more than I do,” I said and handed them the cash.

After I got home my husband joked that Big Soda was pouring so much money into opposing Measure D, maybe they were just planning to pay every voter in the city $100 to participate in a focus group. Given that the American Beverage Association has already contributed at least $800,000 to the fight [now up to $1.4m — Ed]  by the time this is over that might not be too far off.

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Karin Tamerius is a graduate of UC Berkeley and UCSF Medical School. She lives in Berkeley's Westbrae neighborhood with her spouse and three sons.