Op-ed: Lessons from the war on tobacco: How to beat Big Soda

Remember when people could smoke in restaurants, on airplanes, and at work? This changed, thanks to tireless efforts by health advocates like me.

In 1988, California voters passed an excise tax on the tobacco industry which raised prices, reduced consumption, and funded programs that successfully advocated for clean indoor air laws in cities across the state. The resulting groundswell eventually convinced state leaders to reject tobacco campaign donations and take action. This took decades because we had to fight Big Tobacco and its local front groups, their out-of-town lobbyists, and manipulation of scientific evidence.

Sound familiar? Big Soda, motivated to protect its profits, has spent nearly $10 million to defeat Berkeley and San Francisco’s proposed soda taxes, bombarding us with billboards, ads, mailers, and paid canvassers.

So how do we beat Big Soda?  Learn from tobacco control’s success.

#1: Start local.  State and national measures, like California’s recent bill to put health warning labels on sugary drinks, have not succeeded, largely because politicians at this level are too dependent on campaign donations. Like tobacco, action at the local level will eventually turn the tide

#2: Engage your community. Tobacco measures succeeded because broad community coalitions organized to educate voters and local leaders. Berkeley’s Healthy Child Coalition started with the local NAACP chapter, joined by Latino leaders and key churches. We engaged parents and teachers, local businesses, and elected officials before beginning our city-wide door-to-door campaign to educate Berkeley residents.

Learning from the divisive tactics Big Soda used in Richmond in 2012, we recognized that winning requires standing together. Our primary goal is to address the health impacts of sugary drinks – especially the disproportionate impact on communities of color and kids – and to sustain public health programs, such as the school district’s hands-on garden and cooking classes. Nationally recognized and locally loved, these nutrition education programs began in the 1990s in response to disparities in chronic diseases in Berkeley. We need to win now or our school gardens will literally dry up, along with our vision of health equity.

#3: Make strategic decisions to increase the chance of winning. Remember that local efforts to create non-smoking sections in restaurants eventually led to a statewide ban on smoking in all indoor workplaces (including bars!). Berkeley’s campaign leaders made many difficult decisions like starting with a general tax, which only requires a simple majority to win. To advocate for allocation of funds, the Berkeley Healthy Child Coalition created an unprecedented community partnership to hold City Council accountable for our children’s health. Wrestling with what to include in the tax, we decided to focus on the biggest source of the problem — the industry that markets soda to our kids — while working with local businesses to promote healthier drinks.

If Measure D passes, it will be because of the hard work of hundreds of volunteers, the healthy debate within the campaign, and learning from the experiences of other cities. Regardless of the outcome, we have already won because we are united against Big Soda and educating our community about the health impacts of sugary drinks.

Remember what this campaign is about: 40% of our kids, and close to 50% of kids of color, will get diabetes — unless we do something. Let’s do something: Vote yes on Measures D and E.

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Holly Scheider is Outreach Coordinator for the Berkeley Healthy Child Coalition and a former Tobacco Policy Coordinator for Contra Costa County.