Why Did New York’s Soda Tax go Flat?

soda cans

By Rhea Yablon Kennedy. Originally posted on PursueAction.org.

Last month in a post on PursueAction.org, I puzzled out the fierce public interest in healthy food that even a tragic oil spill and a coalmine disaster could not distract attention from. The grassroots groundswell for healthier food in the D.C. area included the passage of a sales tax on soft drinks. Similar bills recently emerged in many parts of the country. In this post, I take a closer look at “soda tax” campaigns and what they can teach us:

One such recent measure to apply a penny-per-ounce soda tax in New York State failed. New York Times reporter Anemona Hartocollis pinned it to a winning anti-tax campaign. She compared two ads focused on Governor David Paterson’s proposed cost jump, one aimed at promoting it, the other aimed at defeating it:

First, this radio ad from the Alliance for a Healthier New York, a name that only a health teacher could love. A pediatrician talks about diabetes, cancer and obesity, and says, “Helping New Yorkers lose weight is a matter of life and death.”

Next, this TV ad from New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes, a name calculated to make the blood boil. A mother unpacks groceries in the kitchen as her son mixes a powdered lemonade, one of the drinks that would be taxed. “Tell Albany to trim their budget fat and leave our groceries alone,” the mother says.

…Now that [the measure] has been dropped from the state revenue bill, it has become a case study in the power of the anti-tax message.

This phenomenon is not unique to New York. Similar tax proposals tried to float to glory on public support in Vermont, Mississippi, Kansas, and Alaska, as well as Philadelphia, Washington, D.C., and many other cities—at least 20 in all this year, by The Wall Street Journal’s count. Yes, 33 states have already passed some kind of soda tax. But 2010 just wasn’t the year for new ones. The vast majority failed.

Looking at this news, I started to wonder. Couldn’t there be another reason, other than a simple, straight-to-the-heart message in a TV ad? Yes, and I think it was complex brew of convoluted, top-down measures.

Trying to fund one initiative with another–simultaneously deterring people from drinking unhealthy beverages while funding initiatives to promote healthy living–makes sense over all. But try to explain all the numbers, intricacies, and the calculated cost to the consumer, and you’ve taken a good 10 minutes. For anyone trying to engage a busy and distracted public, that’s nine minutes and 30 seconds too long.

Bans on smoking and trans fats, and even limits on sugary drinks have passed in other areas. They may not have been popular, but they were simple, not tied to a revenue bill, and they passed quickly without lengthy debate in a city council or state senate.

The soda sellers got that. They made it about parents and their grocery bills, all in a succinct ad.

Likewise, the anti-tax campaigners addressed consumers at eye level: a mom to other moms. Meanwhile, the health camp’s ad had a doctor tsk tsk at the masses.

A top-down approach to get people to change their personal choices clouds the waters. Even Michelle Obama, who could have her public eating a tablespoon of cement every morning if she just wagged her finger and said we’d better get to it, grasps this. When she talked about her Let’s Move nutrition and exercise initiative at the recent NAACP convention, she simply made the argument that eating better is a wise choice for the community. She even described a wake-up call from a pediatrician about her daughters’ weight. It’s a familiar tale she has used before, but the parent-to-parent connection shines even clearer when held next to that doctor-speak ad in New York. I doubt anyone left thinking of Michelle Obama as the nation’s new dietary dictator.

Another complication is that the soda tax debate played out on a slanted playing field. Sure—consumer groups, health organizations, and corporations all had an equal right to get in the game. But as the Times’ Hortocollis points out, when it comes to swaying public opinion, the competition all but closes to any ad campaign with a budget not subsidized by America’s most popular sugary beverages. So the public didn’t exactly get a balanced take on the issue. And when the public polls in opposition to a tax, the politicians must follow.

I don’t know—maybe the public needs a talking-to sometimes, and a top-down mandate here and there. One sure thing is that the food transformations suggested in the Let’s Move campaign—not to mention urban gardens, vegetable patches in school yards, and backyard chicken coops—have all seduced the public, and none of them did it with a bill or ad campaign. Or a ban. No intricate reasoning–just pure, simple food. No 30-second TV spots–just inspired people.

Photo by Alexander Kaiser.

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One Response to “Why Did New York’s Soda Tax go Flat?”

  1. Colton Tate Says:

    Hi there, nice page however there is a problem whereby on occassion I am redirected to the main page whenever I view other posts in this website.

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