TELLURIDE – It’s uncommon that a small and isolated town like Telluride attracts wealthy campaign contributors aiming to sway its municipal elections. But this election season, Telluride was the setting for a fight between corporate interest groups and a billionaire philanthropist who together contributed an estimated total of $148,467 ($81.30 per registered voter in Telluride) in the fight over ballot question 2A, commonly known as the soda tax.
Question 2A asked voters if the town should put a one cent per one fluid ounce excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages sold in town. The revenues generated by the new tax, estimated at $200,000 annually, would have funded education programs designed to teach Telluride children the importance of choosing healthy lifestyles.
The measure was introduced by Elisa Marie Overall, who manages a three-year, $1.6 million Physical Education Program funded by the U.S. Department of Education in the Telluride and Norwood school districts. Overall, who introduced the tax to the Telluride Town Council in July, hoped new revenues from the tax, if voters approved it, would fund programs similar to those in the PEP programs, which will evaporate in 2014.
But in Telluride, a town that prides itself on its progressive policies and small-town democracy, many citizens reacted to the proposed tax with dismay. By a 68-to-31-percent margin, 2A failed, with many voters expressing distaste at the idea of their local government trying to influence their purchasing decisions.
Ballot Question 2A was not the first attempt by a local government to tax sugar-sweetened beverages. Similar measures were put on the ballots in Richmond and El Monte, Calif. – large suburbs outside San Francisco and Los Angeles, respectively. Those ballot questions attracted significant campaign contributions from corporate interests: soda tax supporters in Richmond were outspent 35 to 1, with the American Beverage Association contributing $2.5 million – the same amount Richmond city councilors hoped the tax would raise. In El Monte, where only 23 percent of voters favored the tax, the soda industry spent $1.3 million to fight the ballot measure.
Similar spending occurred Telluride, and perhaps on a comparable scale, on a per capita basis.
No on 2A, the local group that opposed the tax, received a total of $75,000 in contributions, with $20,000 from the Colorado Beverage Association in September and another $55,000 from the American Beverage Association the following month. The group spent $5,000 employing Charles Sheffield, a lobbyist for the Howes Group, a Denver-based lobbying firm with strong ties to the CBA. Sheffield spent months in Telluride orchestrating the No on 2A campaign, even though local grocer and Village Market manager Bob Harnish was the group’s official spokesman and the signer of the campaign finance paperwork.
But No on 2A sunk into debt while combatting the proposed excise tax. According to the group’s campaign finance paperwork, it spent $80,767 on Goddard Gunster, Inc., a Washington, D.C. public affairs firm, which represents both the American Beverage Association and its Colorado affiliate.
Telluride Town Clerk M.J. Schillaci said she’s expecting No on 2A will file more contribution and any other donations by the Dec. 5 deadline.
Goddard Gunster spent that money on digital advertising, polling, designing a campaign website and purchasing print advertisements in the Telluride Daily Planet and The Watch. Goddard Gunster also distributed thousands of No on 2A mailing cards, yard signs and stickers.
But Kick the Can Telluride also received substantial contributions from outside donors, raising $67,700 throughout the campaign.
The Action Now Initiative, a Houston-based philanthropic group funded by John Arnold, a billionaire part-time San Miguel County resident, and his wife Laura, donated a total of $65,000 to Kick the Can Telluride, the advocacy group in favor of the tax. The advocacy group also received a $1,200 contribution from the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit watchdog and consumer advocacy group.
Overall donated an additional $1,500 of her money to the campaign.
“The way I saw it, I could pitch in $1,500 now to help the measure pass, or at the very least keep the conversation going about future funding for our kids with big donors,” said Overall after the campaign.
“That $1,500 is what I consider to be my investment in our kids,” she added.
Kick the Can Telluride spent the money designing a campaign website, purchasing stickers, hiring a campaign manager and distributing leaflets.
While the spending for 2A was nowhere near the aggregate amount spent on the campaigns in Richmond and El Monte, No on 2A and Kick the Can Telluride spent $81.30 per registered Telluride voter ($22 per San Miguel County registered voter) trying to persuade the electorate to deny the tax. And, like in the California suburbs, nearly two-thirds of voters rejected the tax on Election Day, calling into question the role that corporate interest has played in these elections.
Although Telluride, tucked deep in the San Juans with easily accessible hiking trails and a world-class ski mountain, isn’t immune to the nation’s obesity epidemic. To receive funding for the PEP grant, Overall and the grant’s co-director, Bridget Taddonio, were required to survey the body mass indices of school children in the Telluride and Norwood school districts. Their survey, verified by a third-party statistician of the U.S. Department of Education’s choice, found that one in five children in those school districts were overweight or obese.
Telluride Town Councilor and former Telluride School District Superintendent Ann Brady questioned this claim, saying, “I’ve worked with children my entire life, and I know that Telluride children are a lot healthier than most… I know a lot of their parents, and I know they wouldn’t feed their children soda.”
“But many people won’t see these overweight or obese kids,” said Overall during the campaign, “because many of them are home, indoors and on their devices and in front of screens, living a sedentary lifestyle.”
Kick the Can Telluride targeted sugar-sweetened beverages because research indicates that sugary liquids are a major contributor to the national obesity epidemic.
Dr. Jeff Ritterman, a cardiologist and former town councilor from Richmond, Calif., was one of two speakers who attended a Kick the Can-sponsored community forum in October, where he presented the health and societal risks associated with consuming these beverages. Sugar in solids is harmful to the body, but liquid sugar is uniquely harmful to the body, experts say.
“Liquid sugar, as in sodas and sports drinks, is the worst culprit in the obesity epidemic,” said Ritterman. He cited health problems associated with Metabolic Syndrome, which includes obesity, high blood pressure, high fats (triglycerides) circulating in the blood, low good cholesterol (HDL) and pre-diabetes. “All of these come from sugary drinks,” Ritterman said. “Consuming just one of these drinks per week significantly increases the chances of developing these problems.”
To illustrate the health risks associated with soda consumption, Ritterman shared with the audience a 2012 American Heart Association study of more than 42,000 people that linked consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages to significantly increased risks of developing serious health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure and diabetes.
Ritterman and Kick the Can Telluride organizers are far from the only voices calling for government action to curb our over-consumption of liquid sugar. The American Heart Association, American Academy of Pediatrics, American Public Health Association, American Medical Association, Institute of Medicine, American Academy of Family Physicians and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention favor all agree that something must be done to combat the over consumption of these beverages.
A penny-per-ounce tax could be the “single most effective measure to reverse the obesity epidemic,” Dr. Thomas Frieden, director of the Centers for Disease and Control has said.
“Not one single country has managed to turn around its obesity epidemic,” said Dr. Margaret Chan, director general of the World Health Organization at a conference in Finland. “This is not a failure of individual willpower. This is a failure of political will to take on big business.”
Eleven states have proposed sugary drink excise and/or sale taxes. The District of Columbia and Colorado have removed sugary beverages from their lists of groceries exempt from sales tax (but because of the structure of sales taxes, the revenues generated by these beverages taxes do not fund specified health programs).