Big Soda Reeks of Big Tobacco

  • Posted on: Oct 22 2014

By Elliot Haspel, Education Advocate

The tobacco wars of the last half of the 20th century began before I was born, but I can’t help noticing the similarities with the debate over soda and Proposition E. I’m glad to be able to speak up this time, and have a voice in this battle.

Tobacco companies denied the link between nicotine and lung cancer, yet they knew full well what they were doing. Like Big Tobacco, Big Soda denies their product’s impact, in this case the direct link between sugary drinks and Type II diabetes (and the strong correlational link to obesity); they, too, know full well what they are doing.

The American Beverage Association (ABA) said in a statement in 2004, “it is scientifically indefensible to blame any one food or beverage for increasing the risk of Type II diabetes, a disease which is commonly known to have multiple causes and risk factors.” Similarly, the American Tobacco Company said in a statement in 1953, “Undoubtedly lung cancer is now more common than it was one or two decades ago; also undoubtedly cigarette smoking has increased, as have other habits and conditions of modern life. But that does not prove that cigarette smoking produces or contributes to lung cancer.” The echoes are eerie.

In his book Salt, Sugar, Fat, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Michael Moss details how major food and beverage companies have been aware of the science behind the impact of sugar for decades, just as the tobacco companies were aware of the science behind the impact of nicotine when they were spinning their deceptions.

Tobacco companies formed fake “local” coalitions to fight cigarette taxes (they still do today). In Massachusetts during a heated 1992 cigarette tax campaign, it was the “Committee Against Unfair Taxes.” Sound familiar to the ABA’s “Stop Unfair Beverage Taxes / Coalition for an Affordable City”? As if Coke, Pepsi, et. al. have the best interests of San Francisco residents in mind more than the doctors, nurses, teachers, clergy, researchers, elected officials and community leaders; all of whom are saying with one loud voice: Yes on E.

Tobacco companies said that cigarette taxes were regressive; in fact, this continues to be one of their favorite tactics – repeat this word as many times as possible, and hope that voters don’t notice that their lower-income friends are getting deadly, expensive cancer at brutally higher rates. Similarly, the ABA pretends to care about low-income people, hoping San Francisco voters don’t notice that maps of highest soda consumption and highest rates of Type II diabetes are one and the same, concentrated in the lowest-income parts of the city; hoping that we don’t notice that paying $10,000 a year for diabetes treatment is a burden perhaps more worrisome than paying two pennies for an ounce of soda.

It’s worth noting that as cigarette taxes have risen and education has increased, smoking rates in the U.S. have plummeted from nearly half of all adults smoking in the 1950s, to less than 20% today. Smoking-related illnesses and deaths have happily cratered as well.

Whereas the occasional soda is fine (I drink them once in a while myself), soda consumed at current rates is toxic, and the methods the soda companies use to promote such overconsumption in youth is sickening. Big Soda and Big Tobacco – these are groups of companies that are using manipulative tactics to peddle a product that they know is causing harm, and in the case of Big Soda, one that they know is especially harming children, whose brains do not tell them they are getting full when they're drinking soda.

Big Tobacco spent nearly $60 million on advertising aimed at youth in 1998, the year before they were court ordered to stop doing so directly. Meanwhile, according to the Federal Trade Commission, Big Soda spends nearly $500 million on advertising aimed at children. Big Soda is shelling out half a billion a year to make money by making our kids sick.

Two final numbers to illustrate why I’m willing to suit up for this bout, and why I wish I had been able to get involved back when tobacco was the topic of the day: Proposition E will raise about $54 million dollars in legally dedicated funds that will go to childhood nutrition and health programs. Meanwhile, the American Beverage Association is poised to spend upwards of $10 million to convince San Francisco that they are the good guys.

Just like Big Tobacco.


Elliot Haspel is a local education advocate and former public school teacher living in San Francisco.

This post was originally featured on the ChooseHealth SF online blog on October 16, 2014.