Alibi V.14 No.8 • Feb 24-March 2, 2005 

Ortiz y Pino

The Coming Soda Wars

Bill Swift takes on the soft drink industry

The final bill on the Senate Public Affairs Committee agenda on a snowy Friday afternoon early in the state Legislature a few weeks ago didn't sound like a humdinger. The crowds that had filled the cramped, overheated committee room earlier in the afternoon for debate on punchier topics had pretty well vacated the premises when the committee turned its attention to item number 14.

Only 30 determined souls remained to debate the committee's last topic, a proposal to impose a four-cents-a-can tax on soft drinks. Twenty-nine of the highest-powered lobbyists who prowl the Roundhouse corridors were lined-up against the tax. Bill Swift, an owlish, polite and consumed retired academic who'd inspired the measure, was the lone witness to speak in its favor.

On this Friday afternoon, Swift lost. The committee quickly voted to table the proposed tax by a lop-sided margin, effectively killing it for this year.

But Bill Swift might have been the person Margaret Mead was thinking about when she opined that we should never underestimate the power of an individual or a small group of dedicated people to change the world—indeed, it is the only thing that ever has.

The lobbyists for the soft drink industry (and the Chamber of Commerce boomers who helped guard the industry's flanks against the menace of Bill Swift) should recognize that they are on the downward slope of history. Only the angle of their decline is in question.

As it did with Big Tobacco, the pendulum of society's opinion is swinging away from the soft drink industry. It won't happen in the next year or maybe even within the decade, but the wheels of its demise have been set in motion. There will be no loss of momentum. Now it's just a matter of time until we decide to act decisively to control Big Cola.

Sometime in the future the policy-makers of this state (and eventually of all the states) will pull their heads out of the sand and do the right thing. They will stop ignoring the facts about what carbonated beverages, both sugared and diet, are costing us as a society, and will do whatever it takes to drastically reduce how much we imbibe and will start imposing the taxation needed to generate the money to pay for the treatment of all the damage to our health caused by soft drinks.

Surely I jest, you say? Coke, Pepsi, 7-Up—why around the world these peculiar products of our culture are practically synonymous with America itself. Endlessly promoted in every conceivable medium, from television to corporate sponsorships of sports arenas to classroom posters to teen music magazines, how could anyone ever figure the soft drink industry might one day be shrunken in size and influence? But I'm completely serious. It will be.

You see, once we Americans finally open our eyes to a problem, we always demand its elimination. It may take time for us to start seeing clearly, but when we do we don't mind paying whatever the price it takes to fix things. And that's where Bill Swift and his ilk come in. They keep pestering us with information we would rather not have; they won't stop until we see clearly, and the facts are all on their side.

Our incredible consumption of carbonated sugar beverages is the single biggest factor in the epidemic of obesity that is rapidly becoming our nation's number one health problem. Diabetes, coronary disease, osteoporosis and a host of other maladies trace their origin right back to the "pause that refreshes."

Now we're told that 70 percent of all our health expenditures in New Mexico are government spending—our tax dollars at work. The sad reality is that Big Cola is costing us big time. And it isn't carrying its weight.

Last year, when the Legislature, prodded to do so by Gov. Bill Richardson, eliminated the gross receipts tax from food, the soft drink lobbyists managed to slip canned and bottled soft drinks under the lawmakers' noses and into safe territory as a (to use the term in the loosest manner possible) "food."

So now it goes completely untaxed. Unbelievable. I mean the stuff is no more a food than toilet paper is, yet the current policy of this state is that it should go untaxed the way milk, potatoes, lettuce and peanut butter are.

Read the label. It is not a food. There is no nutritional information on the side of the can because there is no nutrition inside the can. It is a poison by my definition: The more of it you consume, the worse your health will become.

Next year Bill Swift will return to the Legislature. He'll have more handouts, more information and more evidence. And he will have more allies. Every year the support for Bill Swift will grow. Eventually Big Cola will topple. They'll try to fight back with even more paid lobbyists, with even more creative advertising, with even more political pressure. They'll protect themselves for a time. Evade taxation. Evade lawsuits. Evade being labeled the health menace they are.

In the end, however, it will come to naught. Because you can fool some of the people all of the time and all of the people some of the time, but you can't escape Bill Swift forever. He is dogged and he is gonna get you ... and when he does, we'll all be better off.

The opinions expressed are solely those of the writer.