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Bernie’s beef with Big Soda

Bernie Sanders has unwittingly become one of Big Soda’s biggest allies in its war against soft drink taxes on the ballot in four U.S. cities this November — and he’s not happy about it.

The Democratic socialist firebrand is demanding that the American Beverage Association, a powerful trade group representing Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, stop using his likeness in the tens of millions of dollars of anti-soda tax ads flooding television and mailboxes across the Bay Area, where San Francisco, Oakland and Albany, Calif. all have tax measures on the ballot.

“Advertising from the American Beverage Association that implies that I oppose ballot items in San Francisco and Oakland that would place a tax on drinks with sugar are false,” Sanders said today in a statement to POLITICO.

For weeks, the beverage industry has been capitalizing on Sanders’ public opposition to a soda tax in Philadelphia — a position he took last spring to differentiate himself from Hillary Clinton who had endorsed the tax during the bitter Democratic primary in Pennsylvania.

At the time, Sanders said he thought the tax proposal to fund universal pre-kindergarten in that city was regressive because it would hit poor consumers the hardest. His comments have since been printed on glossy mailers, blared on television and broadcast all over social media in the Bay Area. He’s also been featured in the industry’s anti-tax efforts in Boulder, Colo. — a strategy designed to appeal to progressive voters who might be sympathetic to taxes aimed at tackling obesity.

“I have not taken any position on those ballot items, and I have asked the American Beverage Association to stop using my name in connection with this misleading advertising,” Sanders said Wednesday.

The Vermont lawmaker has gone as far as sending a cease-and-desist letter to ABA, his office confirmed.

“Excessive sugar consumption is a serious health problem for children and all of us,” Sanders said. “It can lead to obesity, diabetes and other serious illnesses. Every community in our country will determine how best to address this major health crisis.”

The fact that Sanders has now publicly condemned the ads gives health advocates new ammunition to counter the beverage industry’s narrative. Advocates had heard that Sanders had sent a cease-and-desist letter and were eager to get it — ostensibly so they could use the text in their own ads. The letter was specific to the Bay Area and did not mention Boulder, a spokesman said. Sanders’ office declined to provide a copy to POLITICO.

This election cycle, health advocates have more money for their own mailers and TV ads, thanks to the backing of a handful of billionaires — former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a well-known foe of sugary drinks, and Laura and John Arnold, a Houston-based couple whose fortune stems in part from Enron energy trading.

Bloomberg, who has successfully backed similar soda taxes in Mexico, Philadelphia and Berkeley, Calif., has spent more than $9 million to back tax efforts this year, according to recent estimates. The Arnolds, who backed the efforts in both Philadelphia and Berkeley, have spent more than $2 million. The beverage industry has spent more than $30 million to counter such taxes this year alone, making it by far the most expensive cycle for the issue.

The campaigns have been as bitter as ever, with both sides claiming that big-money interests outside the state are trying to tell residents what to do, and both sides claiming that the other is lying.

“Throughout the campaign, the beverage industry has lied,” said Larry Tramutola, a political consultant running the pro-soda tax campaign in the Bay Area. “They believe they can only win by lying to voters. We are thrilled that Bernie Sanders joins the American Heart Association, the California Nurses Association and every major health organization in the Bay Area in calling out the beverage industry for its lies.”

The ABA, for its, part, is unapologetic about using Sanders in its ads.

“It is quite common for a public figure to be used in issue and political advertising,” the group said in a statement. “The senator has used the same approach in his advertising.

“The fact is these taxes are regressive. They would disproportionately affect low-income and middle-class Americans. The senator has publicly opposed such taxes on the grounds that they would hurt low-income families. His representatives don’t quibble with his words to this point, nor should they.”

The beverage industry pointed to nine times the senator had publicly spoken out against the Philadelphia soda tax last April.

“I applaud Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney for introducing a plan to provide universal preschool for all of his city’s 4-year olds,” wrote Sanders in an op-ed for Philadelphia Magazine. “I strongly share the goal of ensuring that every family has access to high-quality, affordable preschool and childcare. But I do not support Mayor Kenney’s plan to pay for this program with a regressive grocery tax that would disproportionately affect low-income and middle-class Americans.”

The Sanders statement calling the soda tax regressive was fact-checked by PolitiFact Pennsylvania, which concluded that it was “True.”

ABA also pointed out that Sanders has used other politicians’ public statements, including those of Sen. John McCain, in his own campaign ads.

Sanders has not reversed his position on soda taxes. But in his statement Thursday, he noted that the Philadelphia tax was three times the size of the tax being considered in the Bay Area when he came out against it. In Philadelphia, the proposal started out as three cents-per-ounce, but was ultimately reduced to 1.5 cents-per-ounce when it passed. That tax is now being challenged in court. In the Bay Area, the tax each city will vote on is for a penny per ounce.

The war over Bernie’s words is sure to continue. Local tax advocates said a new beverage industry-backed mailer featuring Bernie’s photo and comments was sent out to voters in Oakland just two days ago. Still, tax supporters are thrilled Bernie has weighed in.

“Bernie Sanders speaks for himself and not for the big soda companies like Coke and Pepsi,” said David Goldberg, a spokesman for the Healthy Food America, a nonprofit supporting soda tax and other anti-sugar efforts across the country. “We would say we’re surprised they had the chutzpah to appropriate his image in that way, but as they get more desperate, nothing much surprises us anymore.”

Ken Vogel contributed reporting.

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