Pro Soda-Tax Ads Pitch Proposal as Financial Proposition

Beverage Group Maintains New York Consumers Won't Stand for Another Tax

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- An ad battle around a proposed sugar tax in New York is heating up, with advocates claiming such a move is a reasonable price to pay for better health. It's a message that directly aims at the American Beverage Association's ad position that the tax would be a burden on consumers. Either way it will be a closely watched fight as such proposals -- as with calorie counts on menus and smoking laws -- tend to spill across state borders.

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The Alliance for a Healthier New York has begun airing ads urging New Yorkers to support the tax, which equates to about 1 cent per ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages and sodas. The campaign, "Just a Few Pennies," will last through mid-March and is running statewide on broadcast and cable channels. That included a number of slots over the weekend during NBC's Olympics coverage.

"Sugar-sweetened beverages play a significant role in New York's obesity epidemic," Lisa Altshuler said in a statement from the alliance. "This campaign is about sending a message that by adding a small excise tax on soda and other sugary drinks, we can reduce consumption of these empty calories and make real progress towards making all New Yorkers healthier."

One print ad states that "for just a few extra pennies we can reduce obesity, diabetes and heart disease and stop devastating health-care cuts in Albany." Ads also claim that the tax will reduce consumption by at least 10%, with an even greater impact on kids. Commercials also heavily utilize kids and make reference to childhood obesity, a push that coincides with First Lady Michelle Obama's recently unveiled "Let's Move" campaign. That effort is aimed at eradicating childhood obesity in a generation.

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"New Yorkers aren't buying at all that this tax has anything to do with public health, nor that a penny of it will go to health programs," said Kevin Keane, senior VP-public affairs at the American Beverage Association.

According to Consumer Edge Research, Americans are generally opposed to a tax on beverages. More than half oppose a tax, while 24% have no opinion and 25% support a tax. The Alliance for a Healthier New York, however, cites a poll conducted by the Healthcare Education Project in January, in which 78% of New York adults supported a tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, if the revenue raised was used to prevent health-care cuts.

Mr. Keane maintains that New Yorkers oppose additional taxes. The ABA has been running ads of its own, though its buy doesn't appear to be as robust as the alliance's media spend. Mr. Keane said the group is running TV, print and radio ads in New York City and Long Island, as well as print and radio ads in upstate New York. He declined to share more details on the group's media strategy.

One TV ad features David Corona, the owner of a Pioneer supermarket in the Bronx, talking about how his customers are already on a budget and can't afford the additional tax. Print and radio ads claim Gov. David Paterson's proposal will raise the price of beverage products by 50%.

"Our buy is solid and geared toward tapping into the strong public sentiment against a tax on beverages," Mr. Keane said. "The opposition to more taxes in this economy -- especially when it's just going to pay for more government spending and fill the state's budget deficit -- remains strong just like when Gov. Paterson proposed it in 2009. People view it as an overreach when government uses the tax code to tell them what to eat or drink."

Mr. Paterson suggested a similar sales tax on sugary beverages last year, though it was eventually removed from the proposed budget. The tax would impact sugar-sweetened beverages that contain more than 10 calories per eight ounces, including soda, flavored water, sports drinks, bottled coffee or tea, and fruit or vegetable drinks with less than 70% natural juice.

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