POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Jul 2, 2012
NEW YORK >> Lobbyists from Coca-Cola and other big soda companies have met with mayoral candidates and City Council members. Canvassers hired by the beverage industry are stopping New Yorkers on the street and urging them to sign petitions. Facebook and Twitter pages tell readers to “say no to a #sodaban.”
Confronting a high-profile attack on its fizzy products, the U.S. soft-drink industry is beginning an aggressive campaignto fight New York City’s proposed restrictions on large servings of sugary drinks.
Hoping for a debate about freedom, not fatness, the industry has created a grassroots-style coalition called New Yorkers for Beverage Choices to coordinate its public relations efforts in the city. On Thursday, the group introduced its first radio spot, a one-minute advertisement featuring “Noo Yawk”-accented actors proclaiming, “This is about protecting our freedom of choice.”
“This is New York City; no one tells us what neighborhood to live in or what team to root for,” says the narrator, as Yankees and Mets fans shout in the background. “So are we going to let our mayor tell us what size beverage to buy?” Adds one Brooklyn-tinged voice: “It’s unbelievable!”
The charge is being led by the industry’s leading trade group, the Washington-based American Beverage Association, which has retained several powerhouse political consultants for the cause, including thestrategists responsible for the “Harry and Louise” television advertisements that helped defeat President Bill Clinton’s health care plan in the 1990s.
The beverage association would not disclose its budget for the New York campaign, but Eliot Hoff, a spokesman for the coalition, said it was “prepared to utilize whatever resources are necessary.”
The city has also waged a campaign to influence public opinion. Since 2009 it has run five waves of advertising, in subways, in print, on the Internet and on television, linking soda consumption to obesity. The campaign has cost $2.8 million, city officials said, of which 87 percent was financed by the federal government.
The battle is a consequential one for the soda industry, which is on the defensive as public health officials increasingly cite sweetened beverages as a major contributor to America’s runaway obesity rate. The industry has already committed tens of millions of dollars to help defeat proposed taxes and regulations on their products across the country — in Albany, the industry spent $13 million in 2010 to successfully lobby the Legislature to reject a proposed 1-cent-an-ounce state tax on sodas.
But the industry has been facing even more challenges since May 30 when Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed banning the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces in regulated food establishments, including in movie theaters and sports arenas. The mayor of Cambridge, Mass., Henrietta Davis, has proposed that her city take a similar step, and Sen. Frank R. Lautenberg, D-N.J., proposed a federal study of the link between sugary beverages and obesity.
The industry faces a particularly tough fight in New York City, because the proposed restrictions require approval only by the Board of Health, whose members were appointed by Bloomberg. The board plans to hold a public hearing on the proposal on July 24, and the industry, as a first step, hopes to encourage opponents to show up in droves.
The Bloomberg administration said it was unsurprised by the industry’s efforts to stymie the plan.
“There’s an impartial group of health experts who are going to make the decision,” said Howard Wolfson, a deputy mayor who is shepherding the proposed ban. “I think they will be influenced by science, and not any PR campaign.”
Soda executives are vague about their long-term strategy, saying they are focused for now on recruiting local businesses, unions and lawmakers to join their cause. But the City Council speaker, Christine C. Quinn, and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, seemingly closing the door on city or state legislative action, have said that they do not wish to get involved. The industry said it was also considering a court challenge, but only after the regulatory process was completed.
In recent weeks, lobbyists from Coca-Cola met with three likely mayoral candidates: Bill de Blasio, the public advocate, and Scott M. Stringer, the Manhattan borough president, who support the proposed restrictions; and William C. Thompson, a former city comptroller, who does not. The company also reached out to Quinn, another likely candidate for mayor, but has not met with her.
“This is the stuff that you would expect any industry to do,” said Christopher Gindlesperger, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association. “It’s important, regardless of the endgame here, to make sure people understand the impact of this thing, to let them know how it will impact their daily lives.”
On June 20, representatives of soda companies, local restaurants and movie theaters — all of whom oppose the mayor’s plan — met for an hour with four members of the City Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus.
“There was a discussion about joining forces with the industry, and we are considering that,” said Councilwoman Letitia James, who invited the industry to meet with her colleagues. She said members of her caucus mostly opposed Bloomberg’s plan, saying the 16-ounce restrictions could put a disproportionate financial burden on lower-income families and small businesses. James said that she and other Council members would consider filing a brief in support of any lawsuit brought by the industry.
Was soda served at the meeting? “No refreshments at all,” James said, “other than the water cooler.”
The beverage industry — like the tobacco industry before it — has cultivated relationships with minority-group lawmakers, arguing that their minority communities are disproportionately affected by sales regulations.
“There’s one thing that all of these bans and attacks and other discriminatory proposals have in common, and that is that they’re regressive,” Gindlesperger said. “They’re discriminatory in that they target our products; they are regressive in that they target low- and middle-income families.”
Critics of the soda industry say its New York campaign follows a familiar playbook. “The talking points are ‘Nanny State,’ that it won’t work, because people will just buy as much as they ever would, and that this disproportionately hurts the poor,” said Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University.
In New York, though, some strategists questioned why the industry would spend time speaking with City Council members, since the Council is effectively powerless to overrule the mayor.
The beverage association also learned an early lesson about Bloomberg’s overwhelming influence around the city. Last year, the group retained SKD Knickerbocker, an influential consulting firm that produced advertisements for Bloomberg’s mayoral campaigns, to advise it on political strategy in New York.
When a Knickerbocker spokesman, speaking for the beverage industry, denounced the mayor’s plan last month, Bloomberg’s camp was taken aback, according to several people with direct knowledge of the situation.
Allies of Bloomberg conveyed their anger to the firm. The company still represents the beverage association, but is no longer working on the soda-ban issue.