by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Taxes

Dec 2 2012

The defeat of California’s soda tax initiatives: lessons learned

My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column for the San Francisco Chronicle deals with the aftermath of the defeat of two California soda tax ballot initiatives.

Q: As one who campaigned for the soda tax in Richmond, I’m so discouraged by the millions spent by the soda industry to defeat it there and in El Monte (Los Angeles County). I don’t see how anyone without that kind of money can do anything to reverse obesity and diabetes.

A: Patience. These things take time.

Losing the soda tax campaigns taught health advocates some important lessons, not least that money buys votes. But it also taught that appeals to voter concerns about higher prices, job losses and personal autonomy are more effective than appeals based solely on health considerations.

Nobody likes taxes, and soda taxes are regressive, meaning that they impose a greater burden on the poor. Although the poor drink more sodas and have higher rates of obesity, and are likely to derive the most benefit from drinking less soda, taxes are still a hard sell.

Because dietary choices seem so personal, the influence of the food marketing environment on personal choices is not intuitively obvious. Everyone “knows” that larger food portions have more calories, but that doesn’t stop anyone from eating more calories when confronted with supersize foods or drinks.

The public health route

That’s why public health approaches work better than just telling people to eat less or eat better. The most effective measures change the environment of food choice by encouraging better options with price subsidies or portion-size caps and discouraging unhealthier choices, which is where taxes, bans on toys, and restrictions on marketing come in.

Such measures aim to make healthy choices the default. Most people are happy to live with the default option.

Food companies want their products to be the default. They will always oppose measures that might reduce sales, and they have no lack of resources to do so.

How might public health advocates counter such opposition?

Community approach

The Richmond example suggests the need for public health approaches that are community-based. This means going into communities and asking residents how they view the causes and consequences of their own health problems, and what they think should be done to fix those problems.

Communities set the goals. Advocates help communities achieve them.

This approach is fine in theory, but difficult in practice. Nobody makes food choices in a vacuum. Soda and fast food companies market their products to low-income and minority groups, and make sure their products are inexpensive, readily available and ubiquitously advertised.

To gain traction, food and beverage companies support the activities of community groups, sponsor playgrounds, and place their brand logos on everything they can. My favorite recent example is Coca-Cola’s $3 million gift to Chicago to fund an educational campaign to counter obesity and diabetes (no, I did not make this up).

Community-based campaigns not only can focus on the health consequences of poor diets but also can demonstrate to residents just how food companies put corporate health above public health and engage low-income communities in achieving corporate goals.

Teaching how the food marketing environment works should stimulate plenty of questions about why healthier foods aren’t more widely available in communities – and at affordable prices. It should raise questions about why school lunches aren’t better, and why soda advertising pervades athletic facilities. It should get people thinking about what food and beverage companies are actually doing in low-income communities.

Community-based public health should encourage residents to want to change their food environment.

It should get them thinking about wanting stores to provide healthier foods. Or they might want a farmers’ market, community gardens, better school food, and cooking lessons for their kids.

A method that works

These things really can help change eating behavior. The American Heart Association recently published a massive review – with rankings – of environmental interventions aimed at improving personal diets, physical activity levels, and smoking habits (See Circulation 2012; 126:1514-1563).

The review cites evidence for strategies to improve diets such as media campaigns, price subsidies, school meals and gardens, and restrictions on marketing, as well as taxes as portion caps. Some of these interventions are expensive, but others are not.

A review like this gives advocates plenty to work with.

Soda tax initiatives will not be going away. Neither will other such measures. Community leaders across the country will be continuing to introduce them as a means to reduce health care costs and to generate needed revenue for health-promoting activities.

It’s worth starting now to engage communities in efforts to improve their own health. Next time, engaged communities may be ready to vote for health over corporate interests.

Grassroots efforts take time. It’s too soon to be discouraged.

Marion Nestle is the author of “Why Calories Count: From Science to Politics,” as well as “Food Politics” and “What to Eat,” among other books. She is a professor in the nutrition, food studies and public health department at New York University, and blogs at foodpolitics.com. E-mail: food@sfchronicle.com. 

Nov 28 2012

The Danish fat tax: reflections on its demise.

My latest publication is a commentary on the reversal of the Danish fat tax in New Scientist, November 26:

Fighting the flab means fighting makers of fatty foods

A YEAR ago in these pages, I congratulated the Danish government on its revolutionary experiment. It had just implemented a world-first fiscal and public health measure – a tax on food products containing more than 2.3 per cent saturated fat.

This experiment has now been dropped. Under intense pressure from the food industry in an already weak economy, the Danish government has repealed the fat tax and abandoned an impending tax on sugars.

Nobody likes taxes, and the fat tax was especially unpopular among Danish consumers, who resented having to pay more for butter, dairy products and meats – foods naturally high in fat.

But the real reason for the repeal was to appease business interests. The ministry of taxation’s rationale was that the levy on fatty foods raised the costs of doing business, put Danish jobs at risk and drove customers to buy food in Sweden and Germany.

In June this year, a coalition of Danish food businesses organised a national repeal-the-tax campaign. The coalition said that fat and sugar taxes would cause the loss of 1300 jobs, generate high administrative costs and increase cross-border shopping – precisely the arguments cited by the government for its U-turn.

We can now ask the obvious questions. Did the tax achieve its aims? Was it good public policy? What should governments be doing to reduce dietary risk factors for obesity?

The purpose of food taxes is to reduce sales of the products concerned. In bringing in its fat tax, the Danish government also wanted to raise revenue, reduce costs associated with obesity-related diseases, and increase health and longevity. A year is hardly time to assess the impact on health, but the tax did bring in $216 million. Danes will now face higher income taxes to make up for the loss of the fat tax.

Business groups insist that the tax had no effect on the amount of fat that Danes ate, although they chose cheaper foods. In contrast, economists at the University of Copenhagen say Danish fat consumption fell by 10 to 20 per cent in the first three months after the tax went into effect. But it is not possible to know whether it fell, and cross-border shopping rose, because of the tax or because of the slump that hit the Danish economy.

A recent analysis in the BMJ suggests that 20 per cent is the minimum tax rate on food to produce a measurable improvement in public health. The price of Danish foods hit by the tax increased by up to 9 per cent, enough to cause a political firestorm but not to make much of a difference to health.

Is a saturated-fat tax good public policy? A tax on sugary drinks would be a better idea. To see why, recall that obesity is the result of an excess intake of calories over what we burn. Surplus calories, whether from carbohydrate, protein or fat, are stored as body fat. All food fats are a mix of unsaturated and saturated fatty acids; all provide the same number of calories per unit weight.

Saturated fats raise the risk of coronary heart disease, although not by much. Trans fats, banned in Denmark since 2003, are a greater risk factor. Because the different saturated fatty acids vary in their risk, imposing a single tax on them as if they are indistinguishable is difficult to support scientifically.

For these reasons, anti-obesity tax measures in other countries have tended to avoid targeting broad nutrient groups. Instead, they focus on processed foods, fast food or sugary drinks – all major sources of calories. Taxing them seems like a more promising strategy.

What else should governments be doing? That they have a role in addressing the health problems caused by obesity is beyond debate, not least because they bear much of the cost of dealing with such problems. In the US, economists estimate the cost of obesity-related healthcare and lost productivity at between $147 billion and $190 billion a year. The need to act is urgent. But how?

One lesson from Denmark is that small countries with open borders cannot raise the prices of food or anything else unless neighbouring countries also do so. But the greater lesson is that any attempt to encourage people to eat less will encounter fierce food-industry opposition. Eating less is bad for business.

In the US, state and city efforts to tax sugary drinks have met with overwhelming opposition from soft-drink companies. They have successfully spent tens of millions of dollars lobbying legislators and convincing the public that such measures deprive voters of their “right to choose” or, as in Denmark, can damage the economy.

What’s more, the poor cannot be expected to support measures that increase food costs, even though obesity-related problems are much more common among low-income groups.

If governments really want to reduce the costs of obesity-related chronic diseases, they will have to address the problem at its source: the production and marketing of unhealthy food products.

A review by the American Heart Association cites increasing evidence for the benefits of anti-obesity interventions: food taxes, subsidising healthy foods, media campaigns to promote exercise and good diet, restrictions on portion sizes, and restrictions on the marketing of unhealthy foods and their sale in schools.

Governments must decide whether they want to bear the political consequences of putting health before business interests. The Danish government cast a clear vote for business.

At some point, governments will need to find ways to make food firms responsible for the health problems their products cause. When they do, we are likely to see immediate improvements in food quality and health. Let’s hope this happens soon.

Marion Nestle is the author of Food Politics and What to Eat and is the Paulette Goddard professor of nutrition, food studies, and public health at New York University

Nov 7 2012

The election is over (whew): what’s next?

My post-hurricane Manhattan apartment still does not have telephone, internet, or television service, so I followed the election results on Twitter.

I knew that President Obama had been reelected when the Empire State Building turned on blue lights.

What’s ahead for food politics?

With the election out of the way, maybe the FDA can now:

  • Release final food safety rules (please!)
  • Issue proposed rules for front-of-package labels
  • Issue proposed rules for revising food labels
  • Require “added sugars” to be listed on labels
  • Define “natural”
  • Clarify “whole grain”
  • Release rules for menu labeling in fast-food restaurants

Maybe the USDA can

  • Release nutrition standards for competitive foods served in schools

And maybe Congress can pass the farm bill?

As for lessons learned:

  • The food industry has proven that it can defeat consumer initiatives by spending lots of money: $45 to $50 million on California’s Proposition 37 (GMO labeling), $4 million on soda tax initiatives in Richmond and El Monte.
  • But if enough such initiatives get started, food companies might get the message?
The election leaves plenty of work to do.  Get busy!
Nov 5 2012

Tuesday: Vote with your vote!

Tuesday’s election has huge implications for food politics (see previous post).  I’ve been asked to state an opinion.  In case myviews are not obvious, here’s what I’m voting for and hoping you will too:

  • If you care abou the issues discusssed here: Vote to reelect President Obama.
  • If you live in California, lead the nation: Vote YES on 37 (GMO labels).
  • If you live in Richmond, CA: Vote YES on Measures N and O (soda taxes and where that money will go).
  • If you live in El Monte, CA: Vote YES on Measure H (soda taxes).

It’s great to vote with your fork.  But the food movement needs real votes.

Vote with your vote!

Nov 3 2012

Tuesday’s election: Food politics at issue

My monthly (first Sunday) Food Matters column in the San Francisco Chronicle deals with the implication of Tuesday’s election for food politics.

Q: Neither of the presidential candidates is saying much about food issues. Do you think the election will make any difference to Michelle Obama’s campaign to improve children’s health?

A: Of course it will. For anyone concerned about the health consequences of our current food system, the upcoming election raises an overriding issue: Given food industry marketing practices, should government use its regulatory powers to promote public health or leave it up to individuals to take responsibility for dealing with such practices?

Republicans generally oppose federal intervention in public health matters – witness debates over health care reform – whereas Democrats appear more amenable to an active federal role.

The Democratic platform states: “With prevention and treatment initiatives on obesity and public health, Democrats are leading the way on supporting healthier, more physically active families and healthy children.”

Policy or lifestyle?

In contrast, the Republican platform states: “When approximately 80 percent of health care costs are related to lifestyle – smoking, obesity, substance abuse – far greater emphasis has to be put upon personal responsibility for health maintenance.”

At issue is the disproportionate influence of food and beverage corporations over policies designed to address obesity and its consequences. Sugar-sweetened beverages (sodas, for short) are a good example of how the interests of food and beverage corporations dominate American politics.

Because regular consumption of sodas is associated with increased health risks, an obvious public health strategy is to discourage overconsumption. The job of soda companies, however, is to sell more soda, not less. As a federal health official explained last year, policies to reduce consumption of any food are “fraught with political challenges not associated with clinical interventions that focus on individuals.”

Corporate spending

One such challenge is corporate spending on contributions to election campaigns. Although soda political action committees tend to donate to incumbent candidates from both parties, soda company executives overwhelmingly favor the election of Mitt Romney.

As reported in the Oct. 12 issue of the newsletter Beverage Digest, soda executives view the re-election of President Obama as a “headwind” that could lead to greater regulation of advertising and product claims, aggressive safety inspections and characterizations of sodas as contributors to obesity. In contrast, they think a win by Mitt Romney likely to usher in “more beneficial regulatory and tax policies.”

As for lobbying, what concerns soda companies is revealed by disclosure forms filed with the Senate Public Records Office. Coca-Cola reports lobbying on, among other issues, agriculture, climate change, health and wellness, and competitive foods sold in schools. PepsiCo reports lobbying on marketing and advertising to children. Their opinions on such issues can be surmised.

But Coca-Cola also says it lobbies to “oppose programs and legislation that discriminate against specific foods and beverages” and to “promote programs that allow customers to make informed choices about the beverages they buy.”

Lobbyists

Soda companies have lobbied actively against public health interventions recommended by the White House Task Force on Childhood Obesity in 2010 and adopted as goals of Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move campaign to end childhood obesity within a generation.

Implementation of several interventions – more informative food labels, restrictions on misleading health claims, limits on sodas and snacks sold in schools, menu-labeling in fast-food restaurants, and food safety standards – has been delayed, reportedly to prevent nanny-state public health measures from becoming campaign issues.

To counter New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 16-ounce cap on soda sales, the industry invested heavily in advertisements, a new website and more, all focused on “freedom of choice” – in my mind, a euphemism for protecting sales.

Soda tax

Although the obesity task force suggested that taxing sodas was worth studying, the American Beverage Association lobbied to “oppose proposals to tax sugary beverages” at the federal level. The soda industry reports spending more than $2 million to defeat Richmond’s soda tax ballot initiative Measure N, outspending tax advocates by 87 to 1.

In opposing measures to reduce obesity, the soda industry is promoting corporate health over public health and personal responsibility over public health.

Supporters of public health have real choices on Tuesday. I’m keeping my fingers crossed that Let’s Move will get another chance.

Oct 18 2012

The New England Journal takes on the food industry

Last week’s New England Journal of Medicine weighs in with several commentaries and research articles.  Some of these were published earlier in online versions:

And this week, it has another on using tax strategies to promote public health.

It looks to me as though the health establishment is finally catching on to what obesity is really about and giving serious thought to what to do about it.  This is important work.

Oct 11 2012

Big Soda vs. Richmond City Council

The latest disclosure figures show that Big Soda, in the guise of a community coalition, has spent $2.2 million to defeat the Richmond, CA soda tax initiative in November.

The pro-tax group report spending $25,293 so far.

This means Big Soda is outspending public health advocacy by 87 to 1—along with filing a successful lawsuit to keep from having to disclose its funding of the “community coalition.”

I can think of lots of good things Big Soda could do with that money in this community, none of them having to do with selling more soda.

David vs. Goliath on the November ballot?

Sep 10 2012

California judge: Richmond cannot require anti-soda tax group to disclose donors

I’m following the soda tax initiative in Richmond, CA with rapt attention.  Richmond, as I explained last week, is a low-income city with a lot of obesity-related chronic disease and high soda consumption.

Residents will vote on its soda tax initiative in November.  In the meantime, the American Beverage Association has gone to work to spin the science, attack critics, and fund “community coalition” groups to oppose the initiative.

Richmond requires such groups to disclose their top donors on political mailings.  The soda-industry funded “Coalition” went to court to block this requirement on First Amendment grounds.

Now, according to Robert Rogers, the terrific reporter for the Contra Costa Times who has been working on this story, a federal judge in San Francisco issued a temporary restraining order doing just that.

Complete victory for our side,” said coalition spokesman Chuck Finnie. “(Judge Charles Breyer) indicated he doesn’t think (the ordinance) applies to us because we are not engaged in independent expenditures. (Breyer) indicated a city can’t require a campaign to publish political arguments under the guise of claiming it is a disclosure.

This will be back in court on September 18.

In the meantime, “Big Soda” is expected to spend more than a million dollars in Richmond to make its efforts look like a local campaign.

Here is the Statement on Ruling on Richmond Mailer Ordinance.

And here are related Contra Costa Times stories on the soda tax initiative.