Big Soda’s new strategy to ban soda taxes through deceptive ballot initiatives is working

In Washington and Oregon, voters were asked if they wanted to prevent "grocery taxes"—measures that never mentioned soda, but have everything to do with it.

Voters in Washington and Oregon on Tuesday voted on ballot measures that would ban cities and counties from taxing soda—with opposite outcomes.

In Washington, an industry-backed initiative passed by a 10-percent margin, blocking future soda taxes in the state. In Oregon, a nearly identical initiative failed by 15 percent.

Soda taxes are not new, but the use of ballot initiatives to preempt them is. The strategy appears to be a potent one for the soda industry, which may use it to slow the momentum of soda tax initiatives elsewhere.

“The fact that it did pass in Washington would suggest that they’ll consider doing it other places as well,” John Cawley, an economist at Cornell University who has studied soda taxes, tells me.

Only 24 states allow for ballot initiatives in the first place. But in those places, it’s easy to see why the soda industry is starting to embrace them as a strategy. In Washington, for instance, just 260,000 signatures are required to put a measure directly to voters. Why would the industry waste time lobbying Congress for policy changes, or appealing to mayor’s offices, when voters are willing to take matters into their own hands?

Cawley says this practice of preemption—where state governments institute laws that prevent local ones from adopting certain policies—harkens back to a similar public health issue of the very recent past: smoking.

“The beverage industry has taken a page from the tobacco playbook and has gone to the state level to try to get laws passed that just prohibit cities from doing this,” Cawley says. (To this day, Florida preempts localities from instituting their own smoking regulations, for example.)

Preemptive soda tax bans have already been passed at the state level elsewhere: in Michigan in 2017, and in Arizona and California earlier this year.

“There’s a sound rationale for taxing things that cause external costs on society.”
What made the initiatives in Washington and Oregon unique was the way the question was put directly to voters—a mechanism that came with controversy of its own. One of the most contentious features of both initiatives proved to be the language in which they were framed: Neither mentioned “soda” outright. In Washington, it was called the “Prohibit Local Taxes on Groceries Measure.” In Oregon, it was the “Ban Tax on Groceries Initiative.” The language in both suggest that these measures were really about preventing higher overall grocery prices —which is hardly the case, Cawley tells me.

“There’s no city in these states proposing a broad-based excise tax on all groceries,” Cawley says. “It’s certainly possible that there was confusion among voters who mistakenly thought that that was being proposed and they were opposed to that because of its potential impact on their grocery bill. But in fact, what this was really a response to was a narrow soda tax.”

In 2015, Berkeley, California became the first city to pass a tax on soda. Since then, plenty of communities have attempted to follow suit, with varying degrees of success and a lot of contention. In theory, soda taxes work to dissuade the consumption of sugary drinks, which are associated with increased health risks. In his research, Cawley found that a soda tax in Philadelphia reduced adult consumption of soda overall, even after accounting for cross-border shopping by some shoppers to get around it.

It’s not revolutionary to tax products that have adverse effects on the health of citizens at large, Cawley notes.

“There’s a sound rationale for taxing things that cause external costs on society,” he says. “Just as tobacco increased Medicaid bills and Medicare bills that are ultimately funded by taxpayers, high consumption of soda likewise can contribute to diabetes and obesity. There’s a really, really substantial cost associated with those things. Soda pop isn’t the only thing causing those, but it’s one possible contributor.”

A final question: Why did the two Cascadian states, both heavily blue, vote so differently with regards to the initiatives? Well, follow the money. In Washington, the soda industry poured $20 million into a campaign to pass Initiative 1634—which bans future soda taxes, while preserving any that have already been enacted—compared to a mere $8,000 in spending by the initiative’s opposition campaign. Meanwhile, in Oregon, soda and grocery lobbies spent $5.3 million to support the similarly-modeled Measure 103, while Michael Bloomberg, the former mayor of New York, spent $2.1 million to defeat it.

It’s not that the matter of soda taxes is permanently settled in these states. But if voters in Washington or Oregon change their minds—either because they were confused by deceptive language, or because they’ve had a change of heart—they’ll have to wait until 2020 to put soda taxes back on the ballot.

Jessica Fu is a staff writer for The Counter. She previously worked for The Stranger, Seattle's alt-weekly newspaper. Her reporting has won awards from the Association of Food Journalists and the Newswomen’s Club of New York.