Soda tax debates in Berkeley and San Francisco: How were they covered in the news?

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In 2014, voters in the cities of Berkeley and San Francisco, California, were asked to decide whether to place an excise tax on sugary drinks sold within their borders. Berkeley made history when it passed the nation's first tax on sugary drinks, despite a substantial anti-tax campaign from the beverage industry. San Francisco's measure was approved by the majority of voters, but failed to reach the two-thirds majority it needed to pass. The campaigns attracted widespread news coverage, which offers a window into all aspects of the debate and may yield important lessons for advocates and other stakeholders interested in implementing sugary drink taxes to promote health in their own communities.

To uncover key lessons, we are analyzing news coverage of the soda taxes in both cities during the campaigns and the months following the election. In addition, we are examining campaign materials and Facebook and Twitter posts from the pro- and anti-tax campaigns, as well as the Berkeley Twitter hashtags #YesonD, #BerkeleyvsBigSoda and #BerkSodaTax. In our analysis, we:

  • Identify key messages that appeared in news coverage of the soda tax debate in Berkeley and San Francisco and how those messages evolved over time;
  • Assess frequency and framing of arguments about the tax;
  • Examine the extent to which stakeholders from different sectors were present in news coverage, including the beverage industry, local businesses, schools and health practitioners;
  • Compare news coverage from Berkeley and San Francisco with coverage from previous, unsuccessful campaigns in California and Colorado.

As communities across the country propose policies to limit sugary drink consumption in an effort to combat chronic diseases like diabetes and tooth decay, stakeholders can draw on lessons learned from the successful soda tax campaign in Berkeley to anticipate how tax debates might look in their own communities, and to identify messages and media advocacy strategies that could support their efforts.

We will be sharing preliminary findings at this year's Childhood Obesity Conference in San Diego. Please stop by BMSG's poster June 30 at 3 p.m. or July 1 at 10 a.m. or 2:45 p.m. We'll be at viewing area #109.

Interested in more of BMSG's work? Check out poster session #51, which features research we are conducting with our colleagues from the Center for Digital Democracy. Together, we are exploring how big data and digital marketing strategies are transforming the retail food marketplace and what this means for advocates working to address childhood obesity. For more details, including a map of poster locations, see the conference program.

Hope to see you there!


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