The debate over taxing sugary drinks has turned into a ferocious global
policy brawl. In Colombia, proponents faced intimidation and censorship.
BOGOTÁ, Colombia — It began with menacing phone calls, strange malfunctions of the office computers, and men in parked cars photographing the entrance to the small consumer advocacy group’s offices.
Then at dusk one day last December, Dr. Esperanza Cerón, the head of the organization, said she noticed two strange men on motorcycles trailing her Chevy sedan as she headed home from work. She tried to lose them in Bogotá’s rush-hour traffic, but they edged up to her car and pounded on the windows.
“If you don’t keep your mouth shut,” one man shouted, she recalled in a recent interview, “you know what the consequences will be.”
The episode, which Dr. Cerón reported to federal investigators, was reminiscent of the intimidation often used against those who challenged the drug cartels that once dominated Colombia. But the narcotics trade was not the target of Dr. Cerón and her colleagues. Their work had upset a different multibillion-dollar industry: the makers of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages.
Their organization, Educar Consumidores, was the most visible proponent of a proposed 20 percent tax on sugary drinks that was heading for a vote that month in Colombia’s Legislature. The group had raised money, rallied allies to the cause and produced a provocative television ad that warned consumers how sugar-laden beverages can lead to obesity and diet-related illnesses like diabetes.
The backlash was fierce. A Colombian government agency, responding to a complaint by the nation’s leading soda company that called the ad misleading, ordered it off the air. Then the agency went further: It prohibited Dr. Cerón and her colleagues from publicly discussing the health risks of sugar, under penalty of a $250,000 fine.
The battle over taxing sugar-sweetened beverages is becoming one of the world’s most ferocious policy brawls — a clash of science, politics and money in dozens of countries and cities.
“The industry sees sugary-drink taxes as an existential threat,” said Dr. James Krieger, executive director of Healthy Food America, which tracks beverage tax initiatives. In the United States, the industry has spent at least $107 million at the state and local levels since 2009 to beat back soda taxes and beverage warning labels, a new study found. Compared to the domestic tactics, Dr. Krieger said, overseas, “it’s much dirtier, much more bare-knuckled.”
The harassment of Dr. Cerón and her colleagues was never proven to be carried out by the industry, and federal prosecutors declined to investigate. In response to questions from The New York Times, Coke and Pepsi said they were not involved, and Postobón, the soda company that filed the complaint about the organization’s ad, deferred comment to The National Business Association of Colombia. The association, which represented national and international beverage makers on the soda tax issue, said it had nothing to do with the episodes.
The International Council of Beverages Associations, the parent organization of trade groups around the world fighting the taxes, would not directly answer the question about whether its allies in Colombia were connected to the alleged harassment, but it condemned such actions.
“We reject under any circumstance the improper influence or harassment of any individual or organization for any purpose, at any time, in any way,” Katherine W. Loatman, executive director of the organization, said in a statement.
The experience in Colombia may be the most extreme, but a juggernaut of industry opposition has killed or stalled soda tax proposals around the globe, including in Russia, Germany, Israel and New Zealand.
Nevertheless, the idea is gaining momentum; such levies have been enacted in 30 countries, including India, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Thailand, Britain and Brunei. More than a billion people now live in places where such taxes have driven up the price of sugar-sweetened beverages.
The battles have been particularly intense in emerging markets as the industry seeks to make up for falling soda consumption in wealthier nations. Latin America has surpassed the United States as the world’s biggest soft-drink market, according to the World Health Organization, with sales of carbonated soft drinks doubling there since 2000 while they declined in the United States.
The beverage industry asserts that soda taxes unfairly burden the poor, cause higher unemployment by squeezing industry sales, and fail to achieve their policy goal: reducing obesity. Studies of soda taxes have shown they lead to a drop in sales of sugar-sweetened beverages — a 10 percent sales decline, for example, over the first two years of Mexico’s tax — however, such measures are so new that there is not yet evidence of their impact on health.
“Slapping a tax on our products and walking away won’t do anything about obesity in this country or globally,” said William Dermody, spokesman for the American Beverage Association, an industry trade group.
But public health organizations, including the W.H.O., cite soda taxes as one of the most effective policy tools for cutting consumption of what nutritionists call a “liquid candy” that has contributed to an epidemic of obesity and related health conditions around the world. Dr. Kathryn Backholer, an expert on the issue at Deakin University in Australia, said taxes on soda were “low-hanging fruit” in the fight against obesity, diabetes and other weight-related diseases because such drinks are easily categorized to tax and sensible to target because they “have little or no nutritional value.”
Dr. Backholer and other experts said the turning point for soda tax proponents came in 2014, when Mexico — Coca-Cola’s biggest consumer market by per capita consumption — approved a 10 percent tax.
Mexico also showcased how dirty the fight could get.
Last year, numerous advocates of a proposal to double Mexico’s tax to 20 percent received strings of upsetting and fraudulent texts from unknown numbers. One man got a message saying his daughter had been seriously injured; another found a text saying his wife was having an affair; a third received a link to a funeral home. Spyware was found on the phones. The proposal failed. READ MORE