Move to limit and tax soda is the new tobacco fight

It is now common knowledge that, for 50 years, the tobacco industry expanded the market for its deadly products by concealing and casting doubt on evidence that smoking is addictive and causes lung and heart disease.

Big Tobacco couldn't have kept the fraud going for so long without the assistance of public-relations firms that developed diabolically effective strategies for obfuscating science and portraying cigarette smoking as a liberating lifestyle choice.

Fast-forward to 2014: We've come a long way, baby, yet many of these same PR mercenaries are helping to cover up an emerging public-health menace: soda.

The stakes are high: Drinking 12 ounces a day of sugary beverages increases one's risk of diabetes by 25 percent. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, diabetes in the United States is responsible for 74,000 deaths and 37 million doctors and hospital visits a year. One in three children is predicted to develop diabetes in their lifetimes.

But soda is big business. Americans drink 42 gallons a year of the stuff, not including energy drinks and sweet teas.

The soft-drink industry is valuated at $843 billion.

Today, Big Soda faces the same PR challenges as Big Tobacco, and its PR strategy is straight out of the Big Tobacco playbook. In fact, the soda industry taps many of the same PR firms that helped Big Tobacco deceive the public for so long.

Hill and Knowlton, Big Tobacco's preeminent PR firm in the 1950s, is “experienced in negotiating the reputational challenges faced by many … [beverage] companies … as public health advocates have elevated the public discussion surrounding diabetes and obesity.” Translation: Tired of public health professionals whining about diabetes? Let Hill and Knowlton blow some smoke into the conversation.

Then there's Richard Berman, dubbed by “60 Minutes” as “the booze and food industries' weapon of mass destruction.” Phillip Morris hired Berman in the 1990s to lobby against restaurant smoking bans. Berman has fought the removal of soda machines from schools and directs the Center for Consumer Freedom, a front group for restaurant chains that, among other misdeeds, attempts to discredit evidence that soda causes diabetes. His firm's mission is to “'change the debate,' not simply contribute to it.”

Changing the debate is what spin doctors do best, and we see this strategy rolled out whenever evidence of a product's harmfulness is bulletproof. When it was no longer possible to argue that cigarettes were harmless, Big Tobacco shifted the conversation toward smokers' rights and the perils of a paternalistic nanny state.

Let's be clear: Changing the debate means deliberately ignoring public-interest research so that laws are designed to serve corporate interests only. Big Tobacco did it in the bad old days, and millions of smokers grew sick and died. Big Soda is doing it today, and our children's health be damned.

The sugar industry has been playing this game since the 1970s, when the federal government investigated industry claims that sugar was — get this — a weight-loss product. They've sponsored junk science for years but, like tobacco, the evidence that sugar and soda kill is now so strong that they've been forced to “change the debate.”

Bay Area residents are the latest targets of Big Soda's “change the debate” approach. Soda-tax measures are on the ballot in Berkeley and San Francisco, and the American Beverage Association is bankrolling campaigns to defeat these measures.

In San Francisco, the Coalition for an Affordable City is clearly an ABA front group no more genuine than Berman's Center for Consumer Freedom. The coalition is, needless to say, doing exactly zilch to address The City's affordable-housing crisis, but it is doing the good people of San Francisco the noble service of warning them that the proposition will drive up their grocery bills (as if soda is food). Meanwhile in Berkeley, the ABA just made history with a $500,000 donation to the antisoda-tax campaign, the largest single campaign contribution in Berkeley's history.

Alas for Big Tobacco, science eventually overcame PR. Cigarettes now carry warning labels, smoking in public is banned, and cigarettes are heavily taxed. These public-health measures have achieved precisely what Big Tobacco sought to avoid: a 24 percent drop in the number of smokers since 1965.

It's only a matter of time before soda is taxed and regulated much like cigarettes, but Big Soda will work hard to stave off that eventuality. Big Soda may have met its match with Bay Area voters who know how to see through the PR fog.

If San Francisco or Berkeley approves the tax, other cities will follow suit, and Big Soda's influence will decrease, along with the blood sugar levels of millions of Americans.

Erica Etelson is a Berkeley parent, writer and children's health activist.

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