Surprise! Soda Companies Are Paying Experts to Oppose Soda Taxes

Most definitely healthy. Photo: Markus Mainka/Getty Images/iStockphoto

Who would’ve thought? It turns out the soda industry has been quietly paying health experts to publicly oppose soda taxes in the lead-up to November’s election. Several major cities have sugary-drink taxes on the upcoming ballot, and Big Soda’s well-heeled lobby, the American Beverage Association, is spending millions to ensure they all go down in flames. This includes the obvious stuff, like factually dubious ad campaigns, but a health-advocacy group this week discovered a more insidious operation is going as well.

A group called Ninjas for Health noticed a sudden glut of pro-soda tweets from experts, and posted the finding on Medium: “Soda taxes are a strategy dietitians should (and do) support in order to decrease soda consumption and promote healthy options. Yet these dietitians were all posting content against the soda tax, including the industry talking point that a soda tax is a grocery tax.” The post linked to a variety of very similarly worded pro-soda tweets posted within a few days of one another by registered dietitians:

Their tweets did include disclosures (of sorts — “#partner,” “#advisor,” etc.), but nothing about whom they were working for. Not without cause, Ninjas for Health immediately assumed it was Coke. Turns out it was the ABA, but that’s a very nuanced distinction. In a pretty public mea culpa, Coke promised last year to quit all this chicanery and become more transparent; the ABA, of which Coke is the largest member, was not bound by that promise. Eager to avoid another round of “health sham” headlines, Coke yesterday “asked” the ABA to stop paying these people, and the trade group quickly released a statement saying it was suspending the “use of these experts in social and digital media engagement.”

Moving forward, it’s also promised to review its practices for working with health experts, though it’s not real clear what might qualify as red flags. The group argues its experts were compensated for “their time, not their opinion,” and that their tweets were “transparent.” Critics suggest a “more specific” turn of phrase would have been more appropriate — like perhaps #SodaShill?

Soda Companies Are Paying Experts to Oppose Soda Taxes