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Big Soda’s long shadow: news coverage of local proposals to tax sugar-sweetened beverages in Richmond, El Monte and Telluride

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In 2012 and 2013, Richmond and El Monte, CA, and Telluride, CO, became the first communities in the country to vote on citywide sugary drink taxes. In the face of massive spending from the soda industry, all three proposals failed at the ballot box, but the vigorous public debates they inspired provide valuable insights for future policy efforts. We analyzed local and national news coverage of the three proposals and found that pro-tax arguments appeared most frequently in the news. Advocates for the taxes focused primarily on the potential community health benefits the taxes could produce and the health harms caused by sodas. Tax opponents capitalized on the existing political tensions in each community, including racial and ethnic divisions in Richmond, anti-government attitudes in El Monte, and a culture of individualism in Telluride. Pro-tax arguments came mainly from city officials and public health advocates, while anti-tax forces recruited a wide range of people to speak against the tax. The soda industry itself was conspicuously absent from news coverage. Instead, in each community, the industry funded anti-tax coalition groups, whose affiliation with industry was often not acknowledged in the news. Our analysis of this coverage exposes how soda tax opponents used strategies established by the tobacco industry to fight regulation. Despite these defeats, tax advocates can take inspiration from more mature public health campaigns, which indicate that such policies may take many years to gain traction.
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Keywords: media; newspapers; obesity; soda tax; sugary drink

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Berkeley Media Studies Group, Berkeley, CA, USA

Publication date: May 27, 2015

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