Ad campaign signals SF soda battle far from over

Less than three months after San Francisco voters rejected a tax on soda, public-health officials remain steadfast in their battle against sugary beverages and have launched an ad campaign addressing the health impacts of sugary drinks.

The Open Truth campaign, with ads placed on public transit, a Twitter account and an website, takes aim at the 2009 Coca-Cola global marketing slogan “open happiness,” and later variations, by asking “What's so happy about diabetes?”

While the anti-soda effort, which some have likened to anti-tobacco campaigns, will continue to highlight the adverse health impacts of soda, San Francisco voters likely won't have a chance to vote again on a soda tax this year. Talks are continuing among the soda-tax coalition, said Supervisors Scott Wiener and Eric Mar, who were supporters of the losing soda tax initiative. The earliest another soda-tax measure would possibly be floated is next year, they said.

But City Hall won't be silent on the soda issue in the meantime. Wiener said that there are ongoing talks to introduce legislation at the Board of Supervisors that won't require voter approval. He declined to say exactly what that might be. “We haven't decided what we might pursue,” Wiener said.

Wiener said the ad campaign is “important” as soda companies liken drinks to “fun, happiness, unicorns and butterflies” but meanwhile “the drinks are making people sick.” The sugary beverages are blamed for an explosion in diabetes and obesity, among other health impacts.

The American Beverage Association spent $8 million to sink The City's 2-cents-per-ounce sugary-beverage tax, while supporters spent $270,000. Fifty-six percent of the voters supported it, but since the tax revenue was earmarked for health-promotion programs, it required two-thirds approval. The measure fared the worst in minority neighborhoods.

Berkeley, meanwhile, became the first city in the United States to pass a soda tax in November at 1 cent per ounce. It took a simple majority since the funds were not designated for any specific use. Mexico's 1-peso-per-liter tax on sugary drinks also took effect, leading the way.

The Open Truth campaign isn't a San Francisco-only effort. In addition to Shape Up San Francisco, affiliated with the Public Health Department, the UC San Francisco Center for Vulnerable Populations, the effort includes health agencies of Alameda County and Sonoma County and the American Heart Association Greater Bay Area Division.

Roger Salazar, a spokesman for the soda industry, refuted the claims that soda is directly to blame for the rise of diabetes and obesity, and noted a recent pledge to reduce sugar-sweetened drink calories consumed.

“The problem of obesity and diabetes in America is much more complex than Open Truth advocates would try and make it seem,” Salazar said.

Christina Goette, co-founder of Shape Up San Francisco, said she has been sounding the alarm over sugary beverages since 2008.

“They are spending millions advertising products that are deadly,” Goette said. “It's really important to have a counter message.”

The ads, which are paid for in part by Kaiser Permanente, are expected on Muni vehicles and transit shelters next month. They are already on BART.

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