Reader Response: “New York State’s Tax on Sugar Sweetened Beverages Goes Down the Drain: Lessons from Nutrition Advocates”

Last month Corporations and Health Watch posted a story “New York State’s Tax on Sugar Sweetened Beverages Goes Down the Drain: Lessons from Nutrition Advocates.” The following letter was written in response to this posting.

To Corporations and Health Watch:

I am writing to respectfully respond to the “New York State’s Tax on Sugar Sweetened Beverages Goes Down the Drain: Lessons from Nutrition Advocates” article by Ms. Dinour (posted in May 2009). Contrary to what the article implies, Citizens’ Committee for Children (CCC) has at no point wavered in its support and preference for the establishment of an excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. To educate elected officials, health care colleagues and the media on the advantages and strengths of an excise tax, we commissioned a public opinion poll on the proposal and provided poll results and detailed analysis of consumption and revenue to the Governor, the entire New York State Legislature, local and regional media outlets, as well as health care colleagues and advocates. In addition, we mobilized over 4,000 New Yorkers to connect to their state representatives electronically in support of the excise tax facilitating hundreds of e-letters. We traveled to Albany with volunteers and met repeatedly with elected officials to advance the excise tax proposal. We were in constant contact with the Governor’s Office, the Senate and Assembly, providing fiscal impact assessments, projections on consumption and revenue, and encouraging alterations to the sales tax proposal. We held press conferences, background sessions with journalists and media, and testified at hearings on the State Budget and tax options. In every instance we advanced the concept of an excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, not simply an innovative way to raise revenue, but as an effective way to improve public health and save lives by reducing consumption of unhealthy beverages. We remained focused on the targeted use of excise tax revenue as well and believed that resources needed to be dedicated to obesity prevention – something the proposal to increase sales taxes on beverages did not do.

The article also suggests that child advocates and health advocates had not gone far enough in their advocacy methods; stating by comparison that the “New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes created a website, blog, cell phone texting service…” What is missing in this comparison is the open acknowledgement that New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes is a coalition supported by local and regional business interests, industry organizations and corporations in food retail, bottling, beverage, and distribution. Also absent from the discussion is the fact that the resources, contributions and influence at the coalition’s disposal, were not only disportionate but that several corporations actually threatened to move thousands of jobs out of New York, should the sugar-sweetened beverage tax proposal pass. Conversely, the excise tax was supported by small non-profit advocacy organizations and health care providers focused on the health of the State’s citizens but without the vast resources and without the financial leverage and overwhelming monetary stake in the outcome.

CCC agrees with the article’s conclusion: that a key lesson for advocacy is the need for a “strong policy introduction and legislative champion and effective messaging throughout a campaign.” In fact, our poll clearly documented an increase in public support for the excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages when participants are told of the public health, rather than gap closing, benefits. Health and child advocates did not waiver in their advocacy or messaging on that point. Unfortunately the media coined and hung on to the “fat tax” terminology, which not only demonized overweight people but also deflected attention from public health benefits of taxing unhealthy products. The catchy phrase helped to dumb down the public discussion and allowed for the lumping of this proposal in with regressive fees, fines and taxes. Faced with multiple and enormous tax policy and budgetary battles, the sugar sweetened beverage tax proposal eventually lost its greatest political champion: the Governor.

On this point, although the article states that advocates should understand “the historical, social and political environments in order to identify windows of opportunity,” it completely fails to acknowledge the historical, social and political environments that advocates faced when the Governor proposed a sales tax on sugar sweetened beverage tax. The debate, on the best method of taxing unhealthy beverages, took place at a time when New York State faced the most profound recession in decades and needed to close a $16 billion dollar budget gap. A time when there was profound concern about protecting hundreds of millions of dollars in investments in basic supports for children and families. In tandem with our efforts to advance a sugar sweetened beverage excise tax proposal, CCC and others were also leveraging significant political and organizational capacity to achieve a progressive increase in personal income tax to raise nearly $6 billion in revenue and ensure that the budget would not be balanced on the backs of the poorest constituents. Thankfully, we achieved both even though the political and social climate seemed against us from the outset, thereby proving the theory that you can lose the battle and still win the war.

We remain committed to advocating for the excise tax on sugar sweetened beverages because we believe that children will ultimately benefit. In fact, the United State’s Senate Finance Committee is now contemplating instituting such a tax as a means to raise revenue to support health care reform and combat obesity on a national scale. It is clear that the rigorous debate in New York has informed this national proposal. CCC continues to educate lawmakers, now on the federal level, and is hopeful that Congress can pass the tax and in doing so place the needs and interests of children and families ahead of those of the bottling and beverage industry.

Jennifer March-Joly, Ph.D.
Executive Director
Citizens’ Committee for Children of New York