When Oakland’s vice mayor Annie Campbell-Washington helped lead the charge for putting a soda tax on the November ballot, she expected a fight. After all, a similar tax was recently defeated in Richmond and previously in San Francisco and other cities. Berkeley’s 2014 tax remains the only one in the nation to pass by popular vote.
“We saw what happened in Berkeley—the beverage industry poured millions and millions into the fight against the soda tax—but we didn’t expect that Big Soda would be fighting dirty and telling lies from the very beginning of this campaign,” she said at a press conference Friday afternoon at the Oakland headquarters of the American Heart Association.
Last week, two organizations filed cease and desist notices against the No on Measure HH campaign, which is opposing the tax, over the use of images and wording in its advertising. The UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, the parent organization for Oakland North, filed a cease and desist order on October 14, after the campaign sent out a mailer showing a screenshot of an Oakland North story with an altered headline. The headline on the mailer read, “Oakland Grocers Raise Concerns,” while the true headline read, “Oakland grocers raise concerns about soda tax Measure HH.”
The American Beverage Association—the lobbying arm of major beverage manufacturers like Coca-Cola and PepsiCo—has historically fought taxes on sodas at the national, state, and local level, most recently by labeling them as taxes on groceries, rather than on soda.
The other cease and desist comes from U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders (D-Vermont). Mailers sent out to Oakland and San Francisco voters this month by the American Beverage Association’s California political action committee, which opposes soda taxes in both cities, used comments Sanders made on NBC’s Meet the Press in and in an op-ed in the Philadelphia Inquirer in April when the city council there was mulling over a tax similar to Measure HH. The tax ultimately passed through Philadelphia’s city council.
In the op-ed, Sanders argued a tax on sugary beverages would be “a regressive grocery tax that would disproportionately affect low-income and middle-class Americans.” Because the tax would affect the poor more than the rich, Sanders wrote, the “approach is wrong for Philadelphia, and wrong for the country.”
Although the fliers accurately expressed what he wrote and said while campaigning to be the presidential candidate for Democrats, Sanders has recently objected to his statements and images being used, as they implied he endorsed the anti-tax campaigns. “Advertising from the American Beverage Association that implies that I oppose ballot items in San Francisco and Oakland that would place a tax on drinks with sugar are false,” Sanders said in a statement to Forbes.
Brad Deutsch, an attorney for Sanders’ campaign, sent a letter to an attorney for the American Beverage Association on October 10 demanding they stop using the senator’s image and likeness in campaigns against soda taxes. They allege the use violates the Lanham Act, which prohibits the unauthorized use of a person’s name or likeness when it implies endorsement or sponsorship.
“We have no record of granting you permission to exploit Bernie Sanders’ likeness or to suggest any connection between Bernie Sanders and the American Beverage Association, and to the extent the use of his likeness implies consent, endorsement, or affiliation, you are hereby requested to cease all such use,” the letter states.
Representatives for Sanders did not respond to a request for comment.
Even after the letter was filed, the Yes on HH side alleges advertisements against Measure HH featuring Sanders continued as late as Friday, October 21. Three ads featuring Sanders remained live on the “No Oakland Grocery Tax” YouTube account as of Monday, October 24, the latest of which was uploaded on October 20.
A mailer that arrived at the homes of some Oakland residents on October 15 features a still from video of Sanders on Meet the Press under the headline, “What did Senator Bernie Sanders have to say about the concept of a tax on groceries?” The mailer featured quotes from Sanders from Meet the Press and his Philadelphia Inquirer op-ed.
Joe Arellano, spokesman for campaigns against sugary drink taxes in Oakland, San Francisco, and Albany, said Friday that the ad accurately portrays Sanders’ position that the taxes will affect the poor.
“However, if Mr. Sanders wants to stay out of these local issues, we will respect that as well—but the fact remains, he repeatedly stated that a beverage tax is regressive,” he said. “That is indisputable.”
He also sent a statement to the Graduate School of Journalism on October 14 saying that the campaign would no longer use images from Oakland North’s website.
Both sides of the Measure HH fight are paying millions—more than $11 million to date on the pro- and anti-soda tax side—to persuade Oakland voters. One of their biggest points of dispute is whether the tax—one cent per-ounce on sugar-sweetened beverages—would affect only the soda distributors who are required to pay it, or whether it would lead to an overall rise in grocery prices.
“This is not a grocery tax, this is a tax on the distributors—on some of the wealthiest corporations in the world,” Campbell-Washington said at Friday’s press conference. “There is no evidence that the soda tax in Berkeley has resulted in increased costs on any products other than soda.”
Dr. Jared Fine, former dental director of the Alameda County Public Health Department, said at the press conference that if Measure HH passes, the tax would raise $6 to 8 million for health education, nutrition and recreation programs. Those funds would come from the pockets of the world’s biggest drink makers. “That’s why the American Beverage Association is fighting so hard, and is spending so much money on mailers and television and radio commercials, and digital ads,” he said.
Malia Cohen, a member of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors who helped put the city’s soda tax initiative, Measure V, on the ballot, said the opposition’s “big money campaign has been lie after lie after lie.”
“We are very pleased for Senator Sanders to tell the American Beverage Association to stop using his name and his image,” she said.
Neither Sanders nor Oakland North has endorsed either side of Measure HH, which Oakland voters will decide on November 8. It needs a simple majority to pass.