Op-Ed, Daniel Zingale

Big Soda spent big bucks. That’s how it defeated ballot measures to create soda taxes in two California towns.

In Richmond, in the Bay Area, and in El Monte, east of Los Angeles, the measures would have added a penny-an-ounce tax on soda. Had the taxes passed, they were projected to raise millions of dollars aimed at funding local recreation and nutrition activities to fight childhood obesity.

To bury these towns in an avalanche of billboards, mailers and ads, the American Beverage Assn. and friends wrote checks totaling $4.1 million. Supporters of the measures, primarily children’s health advocates, spent $114,000.

Big Soda spent $115 per vote in Richmond and El Monte. In comparison, supporters of Proposition 30, the governor’s tax measure, spent $5.85 per vote.

It was the most expensive campaign battle ever waged in El Monte. In Richmond, 99% of the funds used to defeat the soda tax poured in from out of state, 95% of them from Washington lobbying firms. Not a single cent for the “no” campaign came from an individual citizen.

Big Soda’s sky-high spending was a new low for California. Its political strategists have surely been slapping each other on the back, proud of the strong message they sent to other cities that might consider similar measures.

Richmond and El Monte residents probably would have appreciated it more if Big Soda had spent that pile of cash in a different way, for example, to keep California kids healthy and active. Here’s what that $4.1 million could have bought.

Daniel Zingale is a senior vice president at the California Endowment and a leader of its Health Happens Here campaign (www.healthhappenshere.org)

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