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Cities lead pushback against Big Soda

Hacked corporate emails that expose Coca-Cola’s efforts to quash local health initiatives, a long-awaited statement from the World Health Organization expressing strong support for taxes on sugary drinks, and upcoming votes on four local soda tax proposals are keeping the grassroots movement to protect health over beverage industry profits front and center this fall.

Over the past seven years, the beverage industry has been taking pages out of Big Tobacco’s playbook, pouring over $67 million into defeating soda tax initiatives in 19 US cities and states. On the eve of November’s soda tax votes in the Bay Area cities of Oakland, San Francisco, and Albany, the beverage industry has blocked $9.5 million in TV ad time (out of more than $20 million total spending in California this year to shut down soda tax campaigns), preying on the economic anxieties of Bay Area residents by deceptively branding the initiatives as “grocery taxes.”

These expressions of concern for the welfare of the Bay Area’s communities of greatest need, particularly communities of color, are coming from the same industry that shamelessly blankets low-income neighborhoods with its ads and has saddled generations of its low-income consumers with high-price medical conditions like type-II diabetes, heart disease, and tooth decay.

The industry spends about $866 million per year to market to kids everywhere they go, from their homes to their classrooms and through their social networks. Black youth saw more than twice as many TV ads for sugary drinks and energy drinks compared with their white peers and black teens saw four times as many Sprite ads and three times as many Coca-Cola ads as white teens. Hispanic youth were 93% more likely to visit beverage company websites compared with all youth, while black youth were 34% more likely to visit these websites.

Soda and other sugary drinks are the number-one source of added sugar in the American diet, driving an epidemic of type-II diabetes, heart and liver disease, and tooth decay. Drinking just 12 ounces of soda a day can increase the risk of heart disease by a third, and people who consume one to two sugary drinks per day have a 26% greater risk of developing type-II diabetes. And the burden of diet-related disease isn’t distributed evenly: low-income communities and communities of color face the highest rates of preventable diseases. One-third of all children and nearly half of African-American and Latino children are predicted to develop diabetes in their lifetimes.

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Drink-Soda-Glass by Mitaukano. CC0 Public Domain Via Pixabay.

But now – tens of millions of dollars in ad buys, lobbying, and deceptive public relations campaigns later – soda companies are learning what their predecessors in the tobacco industry learned the hard way: that when community-driven health initiatives go mainstream, there’s no turning back. A powerful coalition of community members, activists, and researchers across the country are using the same tactics that changed policies and norms around tobacco use against the beverage industry, and winning. Today, it’s easy to forget that doctors once hawked cigarette brands, that smoking on airplanes and in workplaces used to be the norm. Community-based activism rewrote the story of tobacco use in the United States – rejecting the industry’s narrative that nicotine dependency equaled independence, changing the culture, and saving millions of lives of in the process. Now, communities are opting out of the “Pepsi generation” and walking away from “the Coke side of life” toward a healthier future.

This summer, Philadelphia became the first major city in the United States to pass a soda tax, expected to generate $91 million in its first year to fund public resources like pre-Kindergarten programs, libraries, and parks. Seeing this measure succeed in a city where it had failed twice before marked a sea change in the national conversation about how to address the outsized impacts the beverage industry’s products have on health.

Meanwhile, Berkeley’s soda tax – passed with overwhelming support from voters in November 2014 and enacted in March 2015 – is showing results. Berkeley’s low-income neighborhoods are drinking 21% less soda and other sugary drinks, while consumption of tap and bottled water increased by 63%. One year out, the soda tax had generated $1.5 million for community nutrition and health programs, including school gardens.

This is just one face of a broader community-led movement to put health and safety first, pushing back against industries and powerful interests that have too often sacrificed community wellbeing to corporate profits. Across the country, we see workers standing up to corporations that don’t pay living wages in the Fight for 15; residents organizing against displacement and environmental injustices like unsafe drinking water, pesticide spraying near schools and homes, and toxic land uses; immigrant and racial justice coalitions demanding an end to private prisons; Native American and First Nations activists demonstrating against legislation that would weaken indigenous sovereignty and environmental protection and open the door to further environmental degradation; social justice movements like Black Lives Matter transforming the national dialogue on racial inequities entrenched in our institutions and policies; and families touched by gun violence challenging the manufacturing, marketing, sale, and regulation of deadly weapons that have infiltrated too many of our homes and public places.

This kind of community-driven change in norms is what public health is all about. A healthier future for all is possible. Our communities are leading the way.

Featured image credit: Happy Child by tykejones. CC0 Public Domain Via Pixabay.

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