Thursday, August 25, 2016

Big Soda Campaigning against a Proposed Tax in San Francisco: A Vested Interest Thwarting Democracy?

With a proposed 1-cent per ounce tax on sweetened beverages such as soda-pop on the 2016 ballot in Oakland and San Francisco, the effected industry reserved about $9.5 million in television-ad time.[1] As of August 10th, the American Beverage Association had already spent $747,267 on campaign consultants and advertisements against the proposed tax in Oakland, whereas supporters of the proposal had spent only $23,297.[2] The imbalance itself could mean that business was subverting democracy by overwhelming voters. If big-soda’s ads were unethical as the pro-tax camp contended, the subversion would be especially harmful.
We’re “up against a campaign that’s willing to lie,” Campbell Washington, an Oakland Councilmember said.[3] As if the industry’s massive ad blitz were not enough of a problem for people like her, the industry was claiming that the tax would increase the prices of eggs, bread, and milk. “It’s an incredibly painful and unethical lie,” said Oakland Councilwoman Rebecca Kaplan. “People worry about having to pay for their groceries. To threaten that their groceries are going to be taxed when it’s not true is a totally despicable tactic from the soda industry.”[4] Hoe Arellano, a spokesman for groups opposing taxes, retorted that grocers “have shown repeatedly that they will pass on those costs to their consumers.”[5] He was assuming that the grocers would not up the price of sugary drinks, but would do so on other foodstuffs.
With the proposed tax being only 1-cent per ounce, Arellano’s assumption that consumers would see a significant increase in the prices of other foods and drinks seems a stretch. The industry’s strategy does seem to include scare tactics, which are unethical. The question of whether grocers would up the prices of soda to fully capture the tax increase is more difficult to answer. The evidence from Berkeley’s tax from 2014 shows that consumption of soda, energy drinks, and other taxed items fell by 21 percent in some neighborhoods after the tax took effect.[6] So People would likely cut down on their purchases of soda. It is possible, therefore, that grocers would not try to capture all of the tax with price increases on the drinks. Even so, the grocers’ profits could take a hit instead of prices of other foods and drinks being affected. I must conclude, therefore, that the industry’s advertising campaign contained untruthful fear-mongering and hence was unethical.
The broader question is whether the huge imbalance in advertising spending was getting in the way of the will of the people being found by democratic means. That is, aside from the fear-mongering, does a large imbalance of campaign spending cause voters to lean too far in one direction when they would otherwise weigh both sides as each having a point. Put another way, such an imbalance can keep a side from getting its message out. To be sure, the pro-tax camp was relying on a grass-roots approach, but that has its limitations in reaching the mass-electorate which has been saturated with ads from the opposing side.
It may be that business has a social responsibility, being within a democratic system, not to overwhelm it with spending on political ads. When an industry has a vested interest in the vote, it may be best for the industry to limit itself to providing facts to the public discourse. To be sure, election results do not always favor the party that spent most; money isn’t everything. Even so, it seems unethical for business to dominate society simply because the bottom line is affected. Free speech is of course a right, but the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling that spending is speech can be regarded as problematic. If so, the use of public policy to reinforce good social responsibility would be possible and perhaps even advised in the interest of protecting the democratic process from being overwhelmed.

[1] Michael McLaughlin, “Big Soda Spends Millions on ‘Unethical’ San Francisco Area Ads Fighting Drink Taxes,” The Huffington Post, August 24, 2016.
[2] Darwin Graham, “Big Soda Is Spending Big Money Against Oakland Surary Beverage Tax Proposal,” East Bay Express, August 10, 2016.
[3] Ibid.
[4] McLaughlin, “Big Soda.”
[5] Ibid.