Beverage Lobby Launches Campaign Against Soda Tax

Leads Coalition to Fight Legislation; Ad Buy Includes National Cable

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NEW YORK ( -- With the New York City Department of Health running a major ad push asking consumers if they're "pouring on the pounds" by guzzling cola, and legislators contemplating a tax on sugary beverages such as soda and fruit juice, you would think that an industry lobby group would break out a loud, brash counter-campaign to try to tamp down the rhetoric.

In this case, you'd be wrong. The American Beverage Association, which counts Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr Pepper Snapple Group among its members, kept its cool while spearheading the creation of a coalition, Americans Against Food Taxes, that also includes the National Supermarkets Association, various convenience store associations and major companies like McDonald's, Domino's, Burger King, 7-Eleven and Delta Air Lines.

And now the coalition is ready to respond.

The group began working with Goddard Claussen, Washington, to produce ads that are pointed, but rather demure, when compared to other advocacy advertising. The effort is the first national campaign the ABA has launched targeting taxes on beverages. Its work in that space until now targeted local or regional markets, such as Maine, which last year signed into law a tax on beverages that was later repealed by voters.

Americans Against Food Taxes ads are now running on national cable networks feature a mom driving home from the grocery store through a town where businesses are closed. "Washington is talking about a new tax on juice drinks and soda," the woman in the spot says. "They say its only pennies. Well, those pennies add up when you're trying to feed a family."

"By anybody's standards in Washington, it's not your traditional sledgehammer ads," said Kevin Keane, senior VP-public affairs at the ABA, which is managing the effort. "There's a lot of screaming and yelling going on in this town right now. By making our point in a direct manner, it will be better received, rather than just screaming at the top of our lungs."

Print ads have also been running in publications such as Roll Call, The Hill, Politico and other publications targeting lawmakers. Mr. Keane said the coalition has spent a "few million" on ads so far.

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The coalition was formed in June, when taxing beverages was raised as a potential way to pay for health care reform. Mr. Keane said there has been an active group advocating for a tax on soft drinks and sugar-sweetened beverages for years, which became even more active this year. Then, in May, the Senate Finance Committee began discussing ways to pay for health-care reform, eventually producing a document that included taxes on soft drinks, as well as beer and alcohol. So far, no lawmaker has formally proposed a tax on beverages. And while several senators were dismissive or skeptical of the proposal, the ABA took action.

"We knew the health-care debate would be a long and high-profile one, so we wanted to make sure we were engaged in the discussion," Mr. Keane said. "Building the coalition was easy, because its members either understood the slippery slope -- once Congress starts reaching into the grocery cart with taxes, they're not going to stop at soda -- or the negative impact the tax would have on people they represent, in the case of the many ethnic, labor or trade groups in the coalition."

Meanwhile, Mr. Keane said the group has no plans to directly respond to New York's ads, but it did run an advertorial in issues of the New York Times and Washington Post this week. It's also been criticizing the ads in blogs and other media outlets.

"[The advertorials] are not meant as a direct response to the [health department] ads. They're meant to address the broader issues of obesity and the soda-tax discussion," Mr. Keane said. "Obviously, a great deal of news and opinion is emanating out of New York City on whether Washington should tax our beverages, so we wanted to let New Yorkers know where we stand."

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