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Soda Industry Spending Against Public Health Tops $100 Million

Spending Since 2009 Targets Taxes, Warning Label Measures

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Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and the American Beverage Association have spent at least $106 million to defeat public health initiatives at the federal, state, and local levels since 2009, according to an analysis conducted by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest. The actual amount spent by the soda industry is assuredly much greater, since campaign finance and lobby expenses are not available in 10 out of the 23 jurisdictions that have considered policies aimed at reducing sugar drink consumption.

The soda industry ramped up its federal lobbying spending dramatically in 2009. That year, legislators were exploring new federal excise taxes on soda as one potential funding source for health care reform. It’s impossible to know exactly what Big Soda’s lobbyists were working on; disclosure reports indicate menu labeling, school nutrition, and the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program were also among the industry’s interests. But compared with the industry’s pre-2009 baseline spending, CSPI estimates that the industry spent $52 million at the federal level opposing public health initiatives.

At the state level, the industry spent $16.7 million in Washington State in a successful campaign to overturn at the ballot box a 2-cent per 12-ounce tax passed by the legislature. Between 2009 and 2015, the beverage industry spent $15.2 million to defeat several measures in New York State, including a proposed state-wide soda tax and then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposal to cap the size of restaurant soda servings to 16 ounces. Between 2013 and 2015, the industry spent $2.4 million to unsuccessfully oppose a proposed soda tax in Berkeley, CA, and spent $9.2 million in 2014 to successfully oppose a similar tax in San Francisco. (The latter proposal had majority support but failed to reach the required two-thirds threshold.)

“Like the tobacco industry before it, the soda industry is spending heavily and spending strategically and has mostly been successful at blocking federal, state, and local public health measures aimed at reducing soda-related disease,” said CSPI director of health promotion policy Jim O’Hara. “However, it’s unclear whether the industry will be able to preserve its winning streak when it has to fend off a greater number of soda tax or warning label proposals simultaneously.”

Overall, the American Beverage Association spent $64.6 million to fight sugar drink initiatives. Much of its money was spent at the DC-based public affairs firm Goddard Gunster, and the media buying firm GCW Media services. Soda industry spending is also bipartisan, and flows to vendors with Republican ties (such as Public Opinion Strategies) as well as Democratic ties (such as The Mellman Group, Beneson Strategy Group, and Dewey Square Group).

The soda industry doesn’t confine its spending to politics. In 2013, CSPI documented how the soda industry leverages its charitable donations to health, medical, cultural, and civil rights organizations to help advance its agenda. More recently, Coca-Cola was the subject of a New York Times investigation that exposed Coca-Cola’s funding of an academic institute, the Global Energy Balance Network, which CSPI says was designed to shift public attention to exercise and away from problems related to soda consumption. 

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Contact Jeff Cronin (jcronin[at]cspinet.org) or Ariana Stone (astone[at]cspinet.org).