My View: An Immoral Capitulation to the Beverage Industry

Then-Mayor Pro Tem Robb Davis speaking on the soda tax at a rally in early February 2016

Upon hearing the news of the deal between the governor, state legislature and the beverage industry, one local official called it good news.  I get it – the law proposed and qualified for the ballot by the beverage industry was a potential huge problem for local governments.  The city would be looking down the barrel of its $9 million in sales tax revenue, needing a two-thirds rather than majority vote in 2020.

But we had to make a deal with the devil in order to avoid this disaster.  A bad deal.

For 12 years now, we will not be able to pass a soda tax.  That’s what the beverage industry wanted.  They did a power play – they put $7 million into putting a proposition requiring all local tax measures pass with a two-thirds vote and the cities and other jurisdictions looked at the polls that showed this thing could pass and they caved.

I find it interesting that, as Mayor Robb Davis steps aside in the next week and a new council and mayor takes over, our state legislature, capitulating to the beverage industry, has killed any real chance of a soda tax.

I can hear his words still: “This is the public health crisis of our times.

“We’re talking about a broken food system,” he said referring to the policy and monetary interests that have created this problem. “Fundamentally broken. Overproducing sugar and the over-promotion through advertising and marketing. This is what we’re up against.”

We have a broken local political system when the council voted 3-2 not to put the measure on the ballot in 2016, arguing that there would be another time.

We have a broken state political system that bowed in the face of a threat from a well-financed industry that knew exactly where to apply the pressure point.

The connection to Davis is inescapable.  The articles in the Sacramento Bee this week on this deal also had a link to the 2016 press conference where Robb Davis, former Mayor Ann Evans, and Delaine Eastin spoke out in favor of the local tax measure that has now been prohibited by this cynical deal.

One of our commenters asked yesterday: “What’s to stop some other group or industry from playing the same game for whatever benefit they can get out of it?”

The answer is of course absolutely nothing.  It’s not *that* easy of course.  The industry did put $7 million into it, which is a fairly high barrier to entry.  You also need an issue that you are likely to win on and you can gain leverage.

“It’s almost as if state Democrats let the soda industry get away with blackmailing them.”

It’s not almost – it is.  The state legislature and the governor completely capitulated here.

This is not only bad law, it is bad precedent.  Why not put your resources into fighting it?

I read the memo from the Executive Director of the League of California Cities, who referred to this as the “Corporate Tax Trick” initiative.  It was sponsored by the California Business Roundtable, with major funding from the American Beverage Association on behalf of large soda corporations.

They believed their opposition efforts to this bill had gained traction.  But instead of bowing down to the beverage industry, why not expose them?  Attack them for the cynical use of a ballot proposition in order to blackmail the legislature into banning soda taxes.

Why not attack the efforts of the soda industry, much as we have seen the tobacco industry under fire?

A few years ago when the Vanguard interviewed Dr. Harold Goldstein, he told us that the research suggests that the proliferation of sugar beverages over the last 40 years has greatly contributed to obesity problems. From 1977 to 2001, people consumed about 278 calories more and about 43 percent of those calories came from beverages.

He argued that consuming just one soda a day increases the risk of obesity by 50 percent and of diabetes by 30 percent.

In 2005, researchers SJ Nielsen and BM Popkin published a study in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. They looked at changes in beverage intake between 1977 and 2001 and found, for all age groups, “sweetened beverage consumption increased and milk consumption decreased. Overall, energy intake from sweetened beverages increased 135% and was reduced by 38% from milk, with a 278 total calorie increase.”

They conclude, “All lines of evidence consistently support the conclusion that the consumption of sweetened beverages has contributed to the obesity epidemic.”

And that is linked to serious health problems including diabetes.

“The challenge of sugar beverages is quite simple, they’re a delivery mechanism,” Robb Davis explained at a 2016 press conference. “They deliver fructose to the liver in probably the most efficient means of doing so. Quickly. And rather than being cleared by the liver, that sugar stays there and is turned into fat and that fat and the inhibition of fat burning that goes along with it, means that all the precursors of diabetes, heart disease and coronary artery disease – the genesis is occurring in that location.”

The beverage industry decided that they couldn’t wage that fight.  So they picked another one – one that they could win.

But why not fight the proposition they threatened us with?  Why not tell the voters, look, if you vote for this you will ensure that local government has no ability to raise money for roads and infrastructure.  You will ensure that school districts have less ability to fund facilities bonds and parcel taxes.  And you will allow an industry which was trying to leverage a protection against a soda tax to win.

If, at the end of the day, we could not convince the voters to turn away this cynical manipulation, then maybe we should re-think how we govern.  Because what we did was wrong on so many levels, whether you agree with a beverage tax or not.

One of the ways we started beating the tobacco industry was the cigarette tax not only made purchasing the product more expensive, but it funded research and educational efforts.  Diabetes and obesity are just as much of a public health threat as cigarettes, but the beverage industry was able to hand us a major defeat by taking away a major tool from us.

What makes it hurt worse is that we did it without even a fight.

—David M. Greenwald reporting


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About The Author

David Greenwald is the founder, editor, and executive director of the Davis Vanguard. He founded the Vanguard in 2006. David Greenwald moved to Davis in 1996 to attend Graduate School at UC Davis in Political Science. He lives in South Davis with his wife Cecilia Escamilla Greenwald and three children.

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54 thoughts on “My View: An Immoral Capitulation to the Beverage Industry”

  1. Tia Will

    I was so discouraged that I could not even speak about this previously. The soda industry, guilty of deliberately delivering a slow poison to the public, is now also guilty of legislative blackmail.

    My personal greatest regret is that my efforts were insufficient to convince 3 members of the city council that the threat of soda to the health of our population was real and that a tax could be, as it was with cigarettes, part of a comprehensive plan to lower soda consumption while gaining funds for health education.

    I remember Rochelle Swanson speaking against the tax, saying that “the time was not right”, it was “too soon”.  Now we will not have that ability until 2030. Another generation of increased risks of obesity/DM II for fetuses, children and adolescents. Another generation of needlessly increased health care costs. What a waste.

    1. Ken A

      As I have mentioned before I don’t drink soda and my kids almost never drink it.  In the 60’s 70’s and 80’s I used to drink a LOT of sugar soda.  As a MD I’m pretty sure that Tia knows that most scientists would not call most sugar soda “poison”.

      The problem today is that most of the people who drink a lot of sugar soda don’t move very much and just keep getting fatter and fatter washing down their donuts and snacks with trans fats with more sugar sodas.

      Back when I started working full time after college I was exercising less and eating more (since I had more money for food) and I started to put on weight.  I was living in SF and decided that I would start getting up early and running across the Golden Gate bridge every morning (when it wasn’t raining) and I was soon back to my college weight (and under a 6min/mile pace for the just over 10 mile run).

      I’ve been exercising (pretty much) every morning for the past 30+ years and I’m about 10 pounds heavier than I was when I did my first triathlon in college and can still average under a 7min/mile for a 5K (and just a little slower for a 10K).  Sugar is not the problem consuming more calories than you burn is (there are no fat people who who run 10 miles every morning)…

       

      1. Howard P

        I find your account amusing (reminds me of my experience)…

        Ran X-country in HS, and continued to run in college, recreationally… then was the “heaviest” I’ve ever been … 6′ 1″, just under 150 lbs… so, have always been lean… I am the weird body type/genetics, that puts on weight exercizing… muscle mass, not fat… eat more when running, backpacking is part of my regimen (which I should get back into, to get to my “healthy weight (adding weight)” and the natural endorphins would be good as well …

        An excellent book “Fit or Fat”, was recommended by our family doctor… he recommended it for my son when he was starting to get a bit “chubby” (he leaned out)… when I expressed my interest in gaining weight, he recommended the same book… we all have our “ideal weights”… BMI goals are good… but, due to genetics, our ideal weight, for a given height, may vary… bone structure/mass, etc. are variables that cannot be controlled.

        1. Howard P

          Calories come in many forms… wouldn’t surprise me at all if many folk’s bodies process sucrose or fructose and/or lactose differently than other carbohydrates… some folk are ‘lactose intolerant’, others not, for one example… gluten in another…

        2. Ken A

          I know that fitness is like a three leg stool with genetics, diet and exercise with virtually all the people with good genetics, a healthy diet who exercise at least an hour a day in great shape while virtually all the people with bad genetics, a poor diet who never exercise in bad shape.  Another easy tip for anyone is to eat “real” (non processed) food and cut back in sugar and carbs (that turn into sugar in the body) .

          P.S. Public schools didn’t give poor kids Pop Tarts and Froot Loops like they do today when I was a kid.  Diet ia abig reason that everyone at the Lahontan Pool last week had a healthy BMI and (almost) everyone at the Woodland Walmart has a unhealthy BMI…

      2. Tia Will

        Ken

        While it is true that there are many other contributing factors to health, it is also true that the consumption of large amounts of sugar in a liquified form is not healthy for anyone. Ultimately, you have made the argument that the tobacco companies made.  They would take an example, say a relative who smoked their whole life and lived to be 95 and say see, Aunt Emma did it and look how long she lived. Or some athlete will pitch it as apart of the lifestyle in which they excelled, ignoring that the vast majority will not excel, and in fact will become much less likely to excel using their product.

        Soda, like tobacco, is essentially a non nutritious, harmful substance when consumed in the manner the companies would like us to consume it, namely ever enlarging quantities as a single serving. Thus my use of the word “poison”.

  2. Jim Hoch

    The soda industry has just given a playbook to every other industry in CA. What is to prevent some other industry, like Tobacco, from doing the same?

    1. Howard P

      Nothing… never has been… at least since the initiative process was instituted…

      And, the “deal” can be overturned by the same initiative process…

    2. David Greenwald Post author

      I don’t disagree per se. But (A) You need the money to back the initiative and the soda industry has notably deep pockets and (B) you have to be able to deliver an initiative that has a good chance of winning. I do wonder how many times they can go to the well. I also wonder if this becomes susceptible to lawsuit claiming it was negotiated under threat. Who knows, the next few months will be interesting.

      1. Howard P

        Noted… but whining advances no football… lawsuit would be cheaper, to be sure… with small chance of being successful… all negotiations have real, or implied ‘threats’ involved… that’s why parties negotiate…

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            I’m always surprised by who reads this Davis-based blog. Part of it is so many people who work in Sacramento, either live in Davis or went to school in Davis.

  3. Tia Will

    Without public outcry there will be no consequence here”

    Then there will be no consequence. The issue was not a popular one. The focus tended to be on “you can’t tell me what to do” as opposed to a reasoned view on what might lead to a better educated, healthier community ultimately costing everyone less in health care costs and less loss of worker productivity.

    This will not gain public attention unless and until the issue becomes one where the risk is imminent, not subtle, and believed to be no one’s business but ones own. Short sighted and self defeating, but unfortunately seems to be the predominant view.

    1. Jim Hoch

      People will not be too outraged by the lack of new taxes. While people may vote for individual taxes they don’t like the concept in general.

        1. Howard P

          Hold on a moment… the “deal” didn’t ‘open the door’ for local taxes, it just didn’t try to ‘shut the door’ a big bit…

          Also, IMHO, the deal was not “immoral”, but might well be “amoral”, or with a ‘different’ morality…

      1. Tia Will

        While people may vote for individual taxes they don’t like the concept in general.”

        A foolish position in my mind since it is taxes that allow us to have almost all of the amenities of life that we would not be able to enjoy without some form of coordinated effort. Without taxes, we would not have police. We would not have policeWe would not have a national system of transportation ( of any type) . For those of you who favor “strong borders”, that is only possible through taxes. Like space or oceanic exploration?  Both were brought about through decisions about how to use taxes.

        Unless we are all willing to go back to a life style in which joint action to achieve what cannot be achieved by one person alone, comes in the form of collective labor such as the Amish use for barn construction, or hunter gatherers use for food acquisition, then taxes it is. So why is it the assumption that everyone dislikes them so much? They are nothing more than the price of the lifestyle we have opted for.

         

    2. Howard P

      Simple math… if most folk do not drink sugary beverages, they could easily vote to tax others… if most folk drink sugary beverages, why would they tax themselves?

      Been seldom I bought or consumed a sugary beverage… has nothing to do with weight, or concern about diabetes… just never much cared for them… I think the bigger risks aren’t in beverages, but rather other “foods”, such as sugary cereals, cookies, donuts, cakes, candy bars, etc.  I rarely consume those either, but when I do, I enjoy them…

        1. Howard P

          Some of the research I’ve seen was focused on a hypothesis of exactly that… “inherent bias”?

          Grams of sugar are grams of sugar… intake is intake, regardless of ‘modality’…

      1. Tia Will

        Howard

        We have not discussed this for a while, so I’ll review why beverages are different. Beverages allow for delivery of much more sugar in a much shorter amount of time without the presence of any other nutrients or substances to slow its digestive absorbance. This presents an unparalleled amount of sugar directly to the digestive system, in particular, the liver which is then tasked with dealing with far more sugar in a large bolus than we can consume at one time with sugary foods. That is why doctors “pick on the sodas” as opposed to the cookies, candy bars & other sugar laden foods.

        Delivery systems really matters in medicine. For example, if you have a really bad infection from a flesh wound, let’s say a dog bite, a topical antibiotic will not be enough. If the infection is spreading rapidly, an oral antibiotic may not be even be enough. You will need an IV antibiotic.

        In delivery of any substance to the body, many factors matter. Speed of delivery is one of the most important whether we are discussing infection, or nutrition.

  4. Eric Gelber

    I kind of agree with Howard on the whining thing. If local soda taxes are off the table, it’s time to go to Plans B, C, …  Press legislators who voted for AB 1838 to support a statewide soda tax, which would be more effective than city-by-city taxes, anyway. Seek funds for stepped-up public education efforts, require posted health warnings, …

    1. Ken A

      The soda tax is just a scam to suck more money from the poor and uneducated who drink most sugar soda.  If we really want to help kids get healthy we should make every kid run a 10K before they get to leave campus and go home (the fast kids can do it a little over a half hour and the slow kids will have incentive to get faster so they won’t be stuck on campus for two hours after school gets out).

        1. Ken A

          I first ran the Bay to Breakers (a 12K) as a 1st grader (back before naked people ran the race).  I only want to require the kids with a high/overweight BMI run (so they will avoid junk food as they work to get out of running) and I would be fine with a 5K for kids under 12.

      1. Tia Will

        Ken

        I am making the assumption that you are not a health care provider. As such, and using your own history as what you think is a reasonable norm, I can see how you might see it that way.

        As a health care provider, responsible for patients with a wide range of capabilities and limitations, for example, the child with severe asthma who will never be running any “K”, I tend to see it from a broader, and less malevolent perspective. It is not my intent to “suck more money from the poor…”. It is my intent to make it more difficult for them to be hooked on a highly habituating and non nutritious product by those who would profit from selling junk.

        1. Ken A

          I had asthma as a kid and one of my kids has asthma (we have Albuterol inhalers in all the cars).  I know that there are a probably a few kids with asthma so severe that they can’t “ever” run 1,000 meters, but asthma like that is pretty rare.

          I may be wrong, but I doubt that Tia has lots of poor overweight uneducated patients telling her “If the state would just raise the taxes we pay on sugar soda I would stop buying the stuff every day”…

          1. David Greenwald Post author

            ” I doubt that Tia has lots of poor overweight uneducated patients telling her “If the state would just raise the taxes we pay on sugar soda I would stop buying the stuff every day”…”

            Sure, but it misses a lot of points in making that comment. One of the keys to reducing smoking was not just increasing the cost of cigarette but the money for research and education.

        2. Howard P

          Ken… one of my teammates in HS X-country had asthma… he needed a inhaler… he was also somewhat overweight… Coach accepted everyone committed to the team… by the time my teammate graduated, he had lost weight, and no longer needed to carry the inhaler… lost track of him after graduation… so don’t know the long-term outcome…

          He had difficulties during training runs… he never scored, nor prevented scoring (for those of you unfamiliar with X-country, the first five runners from a team “score”… two others can lower the score of their opponent)…

          X-country is like golf… lowest score wins the meet… perfect score is 15-45… the 15 wins the meet…

        3. Ken A

          When Howard mentioned “by the time my teammate graduated, he had lost weight, and no longer needed to carry the inhaler…”  it reminds me that people who exercise and eat healthy food have a LOT less health problems than the people that don’t exercise and eat healthy food and it is sad to me that anyone wants to give money to the poor to buy junk food for their kids on the days they are not getting pumped full of free Pop Tarts, Froot Loops and Chocolate Milk at  our public schools…

      2. Richard C

        The soda tax is just a scam to suck more money from the poor and uneducated who drink most sugar soda.

        A lot of the poor and disabled are using their SNAP benefits (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) to purchase their sugary drinks. What this means is that the taxpayers are actually subsidizing consumption of these unhealthy beverages.

        …If we really want to help kids get healthy we should make every kid run a 10K before they get to leave campus 

        If we really want to help people, we would be looking at changing the SNAP program to prohibit purchase of sugary soft drinks with SNAP (AKA “Food Stamps”) benefits.

        1. Eric Gelber

          … prohibit the purchase of sugary soft drinks with SNAP …

          Bad idea. SNAP is a means of assisting welfare recipients to the world of work and personal responsibility—not a mehanism of social control. Placing added restrictions is demeaning, promotes negative stereotypes, and will lead to more and more restrictions. Moreover, SNAP is a food supplement program. Prohibiting the purchase of particular items will not prevent those items from being purchased with other funds.

          1. Don Shor

            Bad idea. SNAP is a means of assisting welfare recipients to the world of work and personal responsibility—not a mehanism of social control. Placing added restrictions is demeaning, promotes negative stereotypes, and will lead to more and more restrictions. Moreover, SNAP is a food supplement program. Prohibiting the purchase of particular items will not prevent those items from being purchased with other funds.

            I agree. Tax the sugary stuff and use it to fund nutrition education programs and pilot programs for smart shopping carts. For everyone, not just welfare recipients.

        2. Ken A

          The NYT wrote in 2017:

          “The answer was largely a mystery until now. The United States Department of Agriculture, which oversees the $74 billion food stamp program called SNAP, has published a detailed report that provides a glimpse into the shopping cart of the typical household that receives food stamps. The findings show that the No. 1 purchases by SNAP households are soft drinks, which accounted for 5 percent of the dollars they spent on food. The category of ‘sweetened beverages,’ which includes soft drinks, fruit juices, energy drinks and sweetened teas, accounted for almost 10 percent of the dollars they spent on food. “In this sense, SNAP is a multibillion-dollar taxpayer subsidy of the soda industry,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “It’s pretty shocking.”

          I’m surprised Eric is in favor if making it harder for kids that end up in poor families that make poor food choices to have a better life (his post sounds like it was written by the big soda lobby).

          If Eric thinks “Placing added restrictions is demeaning, promotes negative stereotypes” I’m wondering if he is in favor of allowing the poor to buy booze, tobacco (and now legal) marijuana with their SNAP cards (or make it easier to cash in the cards so they can buy other things like illegal drugs)?

          https://civileats.com/2017/08/28/congress-could-cut-soda-and-candy-from-snap-but-big-sugar-is-pushing-back/

        3. David Greenwald

          I’m not necessarily against the change, I was actually surprised when we had SNAP what you could purchase with it.  But it doesn’t create the funding stream for educational programs and research which the tax would.

          1. Don Shor

            There are very few people out there (with an IQ >70) that needs “educational programs” to tell them that smoking and eating junk food is bad.

            Quick: is fruit juice good for you, or bad for you?

        4. Richard C

          “In this sense, SNAP is a multibillion-dollar taxpayer subsidy of the soda industry,” said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University. “It’s pretty shocking.”

          I find it hard to see the logic in continuing to use taxpayer money to fund the purchase of sugary soft drinks by people in the SNAP program. Of course the soda industry will lobby hard to protect this subsidy just as they will lobby hard to defeat soda taxes.

        5. Eric Gelber

          I’m surprised Eric is in favor if making it harder for kids that end up in poor families that make poor food choices to have a better life (his post sounds like it was written by the big soda lobby).

          I’m surprised conservatives are in favor of government intrusions into the right of individuals to make personal choices about what they can or can’t eat. Poor food choices are not made only by people on welfare, by the way.

        6. Ken A

          As an anti-war, pro-choice, pro gay rights not very religious guy who voted for Obama that thinks all drugs (except meth) should be legal not many people call me a “conservative”…

          I don’t have any problem with people that give their kids Coke or take their kids to the Folsom street fair and I don’t think that the government should tell people what they can and can not do (unless it directly impacts others), but I’m wondering if Eric sees a difference between the government telling people they can’t have a Coke or can’t take their kids to the Folsom Street fair with the government giving kids in school Coke for breakfast and lunch or taking a bunch of third graders to on a field trip to the Folsom Street fair?

          With rare exceptions the people that can’t feed their own kids have made a long list of bad choices in their lives and just like I agree with the current SNAP restrictions that don’t allow the purchase of wine (that in moderation is good for you) I think that we should also restrict the purchase of low nutrition food and drinks with SNAP benefits since kids who are being raised by people that don’t have enough money to buy them food already have enough challenges in life.

    2. Tia Will

      Yep. All of these will probably be in the works. I think everyone agrees that a statewide tax would have been preferable. What was lacking was the political will which was why the city by city path was chosen to begin with.

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