by Marion Nestle
Sep 6 2012

Big Soda sues to hide its funding of anti-tax campaign

Sometimes the actions of food companies defy credulity.

Get this: The Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, a “grassroots” group funded by the American Beverage Association, has taken the city of Richmond, California to court to block it from requiring disclosure of funding sources in election campaigns.

In case you haven’t been following this situation, the Richmond city council got a soda tax initiative (“Measure N”) placed on the November ballot.

Richmond is a low-income, mixed-race city (80% non-white), with an 11% unemployment rate, and an average household income of $23,000 a year.  It population is largely obese and drinks a lot of sodas.

You would hardly think a city like this would get on the radar of Big Soda, but you would be oh so wrong.

For details, we have to thank Robert Rogers who writes for the local Contra Costa Times.

Mr. Rogers has been following the money.

Because California requires lobbyists to register, he has been able to get hard numbers on the relative spending of anti-tax forces and those who favor the tax.  The difference is impressive.

The city of Richmond must have suspected that something like this would happen because the city council passed an ordinance that requires special interest groups to disclose who funds them in campaign literature.  They must list their top five funders.

You might think this idea entirely appropriate to a democratic society, but the American Beverage Association (translation: Coca-Cola and PepsiCo) does not.

According to Rogers’ account on September 4, Big Soda has sued the city in federal court to stop it from insisting that campaigns disclose who funds them.

On what grounds, pray tell?

The First Amendment, of course.

The suit, filed in federal court in San Francisco on Aug. 30, seeks an order barring the city from imposing its campaign ordinance on the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, a declaration that the groups’ First Amendment rights were violated and money to cover court costs.

The coalition is funded mostly by the American Beverage Association and has spent more than $350,000 locally in an effort to defeat a November ballot measure that could impose a penny-per-ounce tax on sales of all sugar-sweetened beverages in the city.

…Coalition spokesman Chuck Finnie said Tuesday that the law itself is unconstitutional and should not be applied to the anti-soda tax groups.

“The law in question is being enforced to prevent opponents of an unfair, misleading and misguided tax from being able to communicate effectively with Richmond voters,” Finnie said. “The sponsors of the Measure N tax don’t want voters to hear how the tax is going to raise grocery bills, hurt local businesses on which livelihoods depend, and the fact that city politicians would be free to spend all of the money raised by Measure N in any way they see fit and that not one penny must be used to fund anti-obesity efforts.”

In other words, revealing funding sources prevents “effective communication.”

The court will hear this suit on Friday.  Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here are the relevant documents, thanks to Robert Rogers.

  • Mike

    Ouch. What’s the soda industry thinking? File a federal suit to cover up your identity? Isn’t that like tying to put out a fire by throwing gasoline on it? Ah well, gives all of us a clear idea of what extent they’ll go to cover their tracks (however badly).

  • I agree with the general anti-soda movement. High sugar, processed drinks are really a huge cause of most medical problems like diabetes, obesity, etc.

    However, I really hate to go down the slippery slope of trying to tax people to change their behavior. People have a choice to eat or not eat certain foods. Why not encourage families and individuals not to buy sodas. Why don’t we put “Big Soda” out of business by encouraging people not to buy their product?

    I know it’s a problem but I’m tired of personal responsibility being passed over as a cure.

  • Anthro


    How much “personal responsibility” should a child have? Especially a child being raised in or near poverty who may have only one parent who is gone most of the time to a low-paying job? Advertisers target this population. Who is going to pay for an equally effective counter-advertising campaign?

    It’s not that I disagree with you for the sake of it, I just wonder if you’ve thought this all the way through in a way that includes other factors that plague these communities. Making good “choices” requires good information and that doesn’t come from billboards and posters in the windows of a bodega touting the supposed benefits of sugary drinks.

  • I’m not sure the soda wars will ever end, and what’s interesting now is that they’re not battling each other but rather combining forces (and money) to battle health advocates. I’m sure their lawyers look at themselves in the mirror and feel good that they are “protecting their rights” but at the end of the day the soda company that turns their efforts to protect the health interests of those it serves will win the battle.

  • While I agree (to an extent) with the comment above that questions how much personal responsibility a child should have, I am more interested in the dynamic between those who have the desire and the means to impose ideals (what should or shouldn’t be done, eaten, drunk,voted for/against, etc) and those who are the intended recipients. More specifically, what I find interesting is paternalistic attitudes exhibited by those who supposedly know better than others (parents over children, socio-economically privileged over the poor, etc.). In research on childhood obesity I am currently working on in school, I notice a pattern of this type of paternalism flowing from the academics intervening in the marginalized communities which then gets cycled through the population by way of individual family dynamics.

    While the intended result is supposedly meant to be one of community empowerment, what is not being discussed is the unintended backlash that may result when individuals are experience role strain or conflict when attempting to make a transition from traditionally collectivist cultural values to more individualistic ones. And specifically how this strain can result in parental model behavior that is incongruent with the message they convey to their children.

    The same thing phenomenon happens with well intentioned but morally or ethically compromised politicians.

    I am not trying to make the case against change, but am advocating that greater attention be paid to the sociological and psychological phenomenon surrounding these issues.

  • Pingback: Soda Wars()

  • Does your site have a contact page? I’m having a tough time locating it but, I’d like to send you an email.
    I’ve got some creative ideas for your blog you might be interested in hearing. Either way, great website and I look forward to seeing it improve over time.