Big Beverage and the Big Apple

For the beverage industry, New York City is now the front line.

As the New York Times notes, a new coalition called New Yorkers for Beverage Choices is fighting Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s effort to ban the sale of supersized drinks.

Big Gulp cups

Big Gulp cups

The push back is being organized by the soft drink industry’s major trade group, the American Beverage Association, which wants to stop Bloomberg before other mayors get similar ideas.

It’s already too late for that. The city council in Cambridge, MA, last month asked the local health department to research a similar ban.

The beverage association provides this response on its blog: “The debate over a soda ban isn’t about a national dialogue on obesity – it’s about a mandate from politicians who believe they are uniquely qualified to determine how much free will citizens should be allowed.”

While many of the coming battles are likely to be fought at the local and state levels, the industry maintains a strong presence in Washington.

Of the $34.4 million spent by the food and beverage industry to lobby federal issues, more than a third was spent by Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and the American Beverage Association. The following table shows lobbying expenditures in 2011 and 2012:

Organization 2012 Q1 2011
Coca-Cola Co $1,280,000 $5,890,000
PepsiCo Inc $1,025,000 $3,260,000
American Beverage Assn $290,000 $290,000
Total $2,595,000 $9,440,000

The trade group employs three outside lobby firms: Bockorn Group, Heather Podesta & Partners, and Patton Boggs.

Growing concerns about obesity have pushed the association toward a more pro-health stance in recent years. As it declares on its web site: “America’s beverage industry is delivering more choices, smaller portions, fewer calories and clearer labels.”

Among the federal bills lobbied by the group were the FIT Kids Act, which would require educational agencies to include information about school health and physical education programs in their annual report cards.

The beverage lobby has endorsed the legislation, which focuses more on physical activity than caloric intake.

The trade group also lobbied the Fitness for Life Act, which would establish a National Commission on Child Obesity, as well as the Protecting Foods and Beverages from Government Attack Act.

Introduced by Rep. Scott DesJarlais (R-TN), the latter measure would prohibit the use of federal funds for advertising against the use of specific foods or beverages.

DesJarlais proposed the bill after seeing ads targeting high-calorie soft drinks.

“These advertisements strike at the heart of personal responsibility,” DesJarlais wrote in a letter to his colleagues in Congress. Food and beverage companies, he said, “should not have to be concerned that their very own tax dollars are being used against them.”

As the Center for Responsive Politics has reported, lobby expenditures by the food and beverage industry peaked in 2009, at more than $57 million, when federal legislation was proposed to set nutritional standards for school meals.

The Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act, championed by First Lady Michelle Obama, passed in 2010.

The legislation uses a carrot, not a stick: Schools will receive an additional 6 cents for each meal they serve meeting the new standards. Rules for the program took effect this week and reimbursements are scheduled to begin this year.

The American Beverage Association, which released its own school vending guidelines in 2005, commended President Obama for signing the bill.

This has been its approach to government policy: Lobby against efforts for stricter regulation, work with the regulators and draw up voluntary guidelines.

The strategy has been enormously successful. Reuters reports that during the last two years, the industry has defeated soda tax proposals in 24 states and five cities.

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