Deja vu all over again?
In June, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a controversial cap on sugary drink portion sizes. If the proposal is passed, sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces will no longer be able to be sold in the city's restaurants, stadiums, food carts and movie theatres.
Last week, a so-called "grassroots" coalition, New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, emerged to oppose the mayor's measure. But an investigation by the Republic Report found that the coalition is entirely the creation of the American Beverage Association and its high-powered issue advocacy firm Goddard Gunster (formerly Goddard Claussen):
The group bills itself as a "coalition of citizens, businesses, and community organizations who believe that consumers have the right to purchase beverages in whatever size they choose."
But the "organizations" listed on the website simply run the gamut of businesses that sell soda, ranging from AMC Entertainment to the Chik-Fil-A.
Goddard Gunster is not a group of concerned citizens in New York City. It is based in Washington, D.C.
If this is all sounding familiar to you, you're not imagining things. Back in 2010, the New York Times reported on a "grassroots" coalition dedicated to killing Governor David Paterson's proposed penny per ounce soda tax:
Enter New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes, set up by the beverage industry, grocers and the Teamsters, who work as drivers and in production. The organization's Web site describes it as a humble coalition of "hard-working individuals, struggling families and already burdened small businesses," like Benny's Pizza and Kay's Deli.
But behind the scenes, much of the strategic work came from Goddard Claussen, the public affairs company whose "Harry and Louise" commercials helped defeat President Bill Clinton's health care overhaul efforts. The company was retained by the American Beverage Association to lobby against the New York tax.
Goddard Claussen was so proud of killing the NYS soda tax that it highlighted its New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes coalition on its website with a full page write-up that boasted: "As part of a comprehensive outreach effort, we recruited over 10,000 citizens and 158 businesses to join New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes." Shortly after this web page was discovered by the media, it was removed from the website.
Goddard Gunster continues to promote its work derailing soda taxes. Subsidiary Goddard Claussen West currently highlights the California astroturf coalition it formed in 2009-10:
GC coordinated with the national effort (now known as Americans Against Food Taxes) and created a California coalition, Californians Against Food and Beverage Taxes (CAFBT).
CAFBT initially recruited hundreds of supporters throughout the state including organizations whose leaders and members could serve effectively as spokespeople for the coalition in the press and as messengers to key legislators. The California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, Neighborhood Market Association and California Retailers Association took lead roles in that regard.
If you're wondering about the national anti-soda tax coalition effort cited above, the Center for Media and Democracy's Source Watch has this to say about it:
Americans Against Food Taxes (AAFT) is a front group funded by the beverage industry, which consists of major restaurant chains, food and soft drink manufacturers and their associated lobbying groups. It was organized by the American Beverage Association to fight a proposed three to ten cent tax on soda, sugary drinks and energy drinks to help fund health care reform in the United States ... its extensive membership consists mainly of lobbying groups for packaged food and soda companies, chain restaurant corporations and the world's large food and soft drink manufacturers and distributors, including the Coca-Cola Company, Dr. Pepper-Royal Crown Bottling Co., PepsiCo, Canada Dry Bottling Co. of New York, the Can Manufacturers Institute, 7-Eleven Convenience Stores, and Yum! Brands.
Its domain name, www.nofoodtaxes.com, was formerly registered to Goddard Claussen public relations, based in Washington, D.C. The website's domain registration has since changed to Domains By Proxy, Inc., which allows registrants to remain anonymous.
Ties run long and deep between the beverage industry and Goddard Claussen. According to her bio, American Beverage Association President Susan Neely previously worked for Health Insurance Association of America and "created and managed numerous issues campaigns, including the award winning 'Harry and Louise' TV commercials and campaign" in 1994, which was created by Goddard Claussen.
With the beverage industry on overdrive to halt sugary drink taxes and now the Bloomberg portion cap proposal, it's not surprising that almost everywhere a soda tax or portion cap has been proposed, an anti-soda tax or anti-portion cap coalition and website has quickly appeared. In Richmond, Calif., which will have a soda tax measure on the November ballot, the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, was recently created by the beverage industry. The coalition's website domain is registered under Goddard Claussen Public Affairs in Washington.
Anti-soda tax coalitions have also been created in the following locales. Note the similarities in many of the domain names:
Texas: No Texas Beverage Tax
Philadelphia: Philly Jobs. Not Taxes.
Washington, D.C.: No DC Beverage Tax
Washington State: Washingtonians Against the Beverage Tax
Rhode Island: Rhode Islanders Against the Beverage Tax
Hawaii: No Hawaii Beverage Tax
Baltimore: Stop the Baltimore City Beverage Tax
Chicago: Chicago Coalition Against Beverage Taxes
Pittsburgh: No Pittsburgh Beverage Tax
Vermont: Stop the Vermont Beverage Tax
Kansas: Kansans Against Food and Beverage Taxes
Oregon: Oregon Coalition Against Beverage Taxes
Illinois: Illinois Coalition Against Beverage Taxes
The deep-pocketed American Beverage Association, which is funded by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Dr. Pepper/Snapple and others, has been successfully framing the sugary beverage tax issue across the nation with the help of astroturf coalitions created by Goddard Claussen/Goddard Gunster. Mayor Bloomberg's recent portion cap proposal is getting the same treatment with the industry's creation of New Yorkers for Beverage Choices. Until public health advocates can effectively undermine the legitimacy of these phony "grassroots" coalitions, Big Beverage will continue to have the messaging advantage.