Since 2014, advocates and communities have organized and mobilized to take action against the sugary drinks the beverage industry peddles. Collectively, decision makers, public health experts and community members have spent the better part of the last decade working to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks while also investing in the communities most harmed by these products.
From Seattle to Philadelphia, advocacy campaigns have made great strides for public health and racial equity, but what were the elements that helped make their campaigns so successful? I’d like to share a few thoughts on this from my experience in working with organizations across the nation so that you too can find success should you consider taking on a sugary drink tax campaign.
1. Authentic Engagement Builds Power
Berkley, San Francisco and Navajo Nation engaged the community early on as part of the solution to a problem they identified. These campaigns engaged their local communities not only at the very beginning, but also throughout the process.
Community members played a central role in the campaign and that led to sugary drink tax victories. Early involvement and continued engagement are critical to authentically seeking policy change that directly impacts communities. From identifying the policy solution to laying out the programs the revenue raised will fund, it is key that the people you are advocating for are leading the movement.
If the people who you are working so hard to create change for don’t see themselves in the policy solution, you need to invest more time in building those relationships.
2. Education Builds Power
Information is power. It’s also an important part of the work we do at Voices for Healthy Kids. As an initiative of the American Heart Association, our work is steeped in the latest research and data, and we compile the information we gather to help with education and understanding of how sugary drink consumption is linked to poor health. The recently updated sugary drink tax calculator from the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity is an example of a great data tool to help advocates understand and illustrate the potential impact of their work.
I remember when I began learning about the deceptive marketing tactics the beverage industry uses to get kids as young as 2 hooked on sugary drinks. As a mom and public health advocate, I was alarmed. I always thought sugary drink consumption came down to “choice” or personal preferences. What I learned is that the beverage industry has spent tens of billions of dollars on advertising to convince consumers to buy their products. Telling me what my choice should be all along.
These deceptive tactics, alongside historical redlining, community design and disinvestment, contribute to many of the health disparities we see in communities of color. As a result, Black, Indigenous and Latino children and families have higher rates of chronic diseases and poorer health outcomes. Both lead to shorter lifespans. We know this first hand because we live in these spaces and experience the loss and the impact without a real solution to changing these outcomes.
So, what can advocates do with this information? To start, advocates can demand change by using scientific data paired with their own personal experiences. Advocates decide how they will join you in this effort to eliminate the over saturation of sugary drinks in their communities. I am sure they are tired of being told what they need, let them tell you what they want and how they want to do it.
3. Messengers and Messaging Convey Power
What is your problem and solution? Who is your audience? What do you want them to know or understand? Who are your best messengers for these messages and your audiences? These are good questions to ask yourself before, during and even after your campaign.
One piece of advice though - try to stay away from responding to industry. Instead, use your assets like community members, voters and influencers who will speak to key decision makers. Stay on your message and feature the community members who have the real stories to tell about how sugary drinks have impacted their lives.
Your message must be clear and connected to the issues you are trying to address. If it is reversing the trends of type 2 diabetes, then focus your messages on creating a healthy, productive community. If it is to help local leaders invest in spaces for physical activity, then address the need to fund public infrastructure. The public has a vested interest in making sure that all community members have the chance to lead healthy lives.
The most successful advocacy campaigns take time and effort and your greatest asset in your work is the people you build relationships with that will come to the table with you and believe in the change you all are trying to shape together. Take the time to build authentic relationships, learn from them and use your power collectively to achieve the change you seek.
New Resource: Sugary Drink Messaging for Policy Change helps advocates talk about sugary drinks to advance equitable policies that support healthy communities!