American Beverage Association: Can the Tax
Mobilizing Broad Public Opinion to Repeal an Unpopular Tax
Momentum had been building for sweetened beverage tax advocates across the country. Backed by millions of dollars from billionaire and former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, public health advocates had successfully secured passage of nearly a dozen new sweetened beverage taxes between 2013 and 2016. They had been able to sell the tax as a tool to reduce obesity.
In fall 2016, Cook County, Illinois became the largest municipality in the country to approve a sweetened beverage tax, assessing a one-cent per ounce tax on approximately 1,100 everyday beverages.
Strategy and Tactics:
With Cook County’s sweetened beverage tax was set to go into effect in July 2017, Resolute was engaged in April by the American Beverage Association (ABA) to develop and manage a public affairs campaign to repeal the tax. The campaign included coalition building, outreach and engagement with public officials and residents, and an aggressive media relations effort.
- Coalition: In May, we launched the Can the Tax Coalition with nearly two dozen organizations in Cook County, including the most prominent retailer, restaurant and manufacturing associations in the state.
- Outreach/Engagement: Over the next five months, Resolute’s team of outreach and communications specialists led and managed a campaign that built a coalition of more than 50,000 Cook County retailers, restauranteurs, residents, vending machine operators and other affected by the tax. The campaign aggressively captured and projected the overwhelming outrage felt by Cook County residents toward the tax and reframed the conversation on the true motives of Cook County leaders: generating new tax revenue to fuel county spending.
- Media Relations: All campaign activities strategically focused on influencing Cook County Board members based on what we knew about their views on the tax. Weekly (sometimes two and three times each week) news conferences, media events, rallies and other activities featured more than 150 Cook County residents and businesses negatively impacted by the tax, including declines in beverage and overall sales nearing 50%.
- An aggressive field operation, paid digital, broadcast and radio advertisements and a direct mail program focused on educating residents, businesses and elected officials and providing them with an opportunity to take action. More than 21,000 letters and emails were sent to county commissioners through the Can the Tax Coalition and nearly 10,000 phone calls were made as a result of coalition activities.
The campaign dominated the front and editorial pages of every major newspaper in Cook County and was featured in national news outlets, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, USA Today and the Washington Post. In just 22 weeks, more than 650 broadcast stories and articles, including 28 overwhelmingly pro-repeal editorials.
With momentum for repeal building during the summer, former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced he would “spend whatever it takes” to defeat the repeal effort. In just seven weeks, Bloomberg blanketed the airways and internet, spending more than $13 million in paid advertising to try and block repeal. It didn’t work.
Resolute developed a rapid response program and worked with coalition members and residents who spoke out against Bloomberg’s misleading advertisements. The campaign generated enormous opposition to Bloomberg’s efforts and polls showed opposition to the beverage tax actually increased to nearly 90 percent the more people saw his advertisements.
With public and political pressure mounting, seven county commissioners changed their position on the beverage tax. The beverage tax – which had initially passed 8-8 with the County Board President breaking the tie – was repealed by a final vote of 15-2. Cook County became the first municipality in the nation to repeal a sweetened beverage tax – just two months after the tax went into effect.
During the final vote, a number of county commissioners (including the leading opponent of repeal) credited the Can the Tax Coalition for changing the political and policy environment and making repeal a reality.