Consumers may be in luck with several new studies that claim to show that soda taxes have worked in cities where they have been implemented in such as Seattle’s $.0175-per-ounce tax (and its effects on Portland Oregon’s sales) and Oakland, California’s penny-per-ounce tax.
The problem is that these studies are funded by grants from Bloomberg Philanthropies — former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s own private charity. This charity has doled out billions of dollars to numerous issues. Michael Bloomberg has also donated millions to campaigns to enact those taxes.
Bloomberg has an obvious disdain for smokers. As mayor of New York City, Bloomberg pushed for excessive sin taxes and bans on cigarettes before going after “Big Soda.” He pushed the same policies across the globe by spending more than $1 billion on anti-tobacco campaigns which are being scrutinized. For example, a March 2021 feature in the Chronicle of Philanthropy questioned if Bloomberg’s anti-vaping campaign could be doing “more harm than good.”
It was 2016 when the former mayor would really make his name as soda’s biggest enemy. That year, Bloomberg bankrolled many soda tax initiatives including Philadelphia, Chicago, Oakland, and San Francisco.
According to campaign finance disclosures, Bloomberg donated more than $9.3 million to Yes on Measure HH and the Coalition for Health Oakland Children to promote Oakland’s $0.01-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages.
In 2017, Seattle’s city council brought forth its 1.75-cent soda tax. The same year, Michael Bloomberg donated $115,000 to the Coalition for Healthy Kids, which was a committee set up in the event of a possible new ballot issue. The city council would approve the tax in a 7 to 1 vote.
Bloomberg-funded research is now being touted as proof of the effectiveness of Bloomberg-backed soda taxes. Any other company or organization would be subject to intense scrutiny over a clear conflict of interest, yet there seems to be no concern about this blatant conflict. Recently, JUUL, a vaping company, made headlines when it paid a medical journal to allow free public access to studies it conducted on its products — many of which were required for its regulatory application to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for approval. Rather than focusing on the research the fledgling company presented, journalists from Business Insider to Vice ran articles that alluded to the instance as an example of JUUL buying off a journal.
And now, journalists from The Counter and Quartz are promoting headlines claiming that the taxes are working and that this new research “should worry beverage companies.” Yet, neither article mentions that Bloomberg funded the research and the tax initiatives.
Deeply problematic is that one of the authors associated with the latest research is also affiliated with the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
In late 2016, the Cook County, Illinois Board of Commissioners passed a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary beverages. Before the passage, Bloomberg spent $1 million supporting the tax. Bloomberg went on the defensive after the public launched a campaign to repeal the tax, as well as court maneuvers to block the July 2017 implementation date. The court ruled that the tax would go into effect beginning August 2, 2017. On August 17, 2017, Bloomberg’s charity announced $2 million to “be spent on television, radio and digital ads” supporting the tax. Cook County residents were not impressed. One actually questioned whether “Bloomberg [is] that stupid or does he think the Cook County Electorate is?”
By September, Bloomberg doubled down by offering financial backing to Cook County commissioners who supported the soda taxes. Bloomberg noted that he would “do everything necessary to ensure that elected officials who stood up against the soda industry are re-elected.” In October 2017, the Cook County Board of Commissioners voted 15 to 2 to repeal the tax. When all was said and done Bloomberg had spent an estimated $13 million supporting the defeated soda tax in Cook County, Illinois.
Disturbingly, right before the ill-fated tax defeat in late September, Bloomberg Philanthropies announced a $2.5 million grant to the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago to “study whether the tax actually improves public health over an extended period of time.” The grant to the School of Public Health was part of a $4.9 million grant to examine the effects of Oakland’s tax.
That research is now being touted as proof of the effectiveness of soda taxes. In reality, it’s just a prime example of Bloomberg’s billions being used to push prohibitionist policies that hurt consumers and taxpayers.
In the New Year, policymakers would be better off ditching Bloomberg’s billions.
Lindsey Stroud is Director of The Taxpayers Protection Alliance’s Consumer Center.