Sen. Reuven Carlyle, center, wants Coca-Cola to disclose their support for ballot initiatives.
Sen. Reuven Carlyle, center, wants Coca-Cola to disclose their support for ballot initiatives. Lester Black

Coca-Cola’s iconic cursive white letters are nowhere to be seen on any ads for Initiative 1634. Instead of bottles of soda you see humble Washingtonians asking you to help keep groceries affordable.

The campaign for Initiative 1634 might have a grassroots vibe to it based on its ads, but its campaign disclosures tell a different story. Four soda companies have spent over $20 million on the initiative, which if passed would make soda taxes illegal statewide. Coca-Cola has donated over $9 million alone, yet most people have no idea they are even involved in the campaign.

Sen. Reuven Carlyle wants to change that. The Seattle state senator announced Tuesday that he will introduce legislation that will require the names of all donors that give over $50,000 to a ballot initiative campaign be listed on all advertising.

“It will require the corporate logos of the actual companies actually investing in initiatives be placed into every advertisement,” Carlyle said.

Carlyle said he is also looking into requiring the executives of those companies to put themselves in all video ads, just as political candidates are already required to do.

“They will have to introduce themselves at the end of a TV ad and say 'I’m the CEO of Coca-Cola and I approve this ad,'" Carlyle said.

In the case of Initiative 1634, these requirements would apply to Coca-Cola ($9.6 million), Pepsi ($7.2 million), Dr. Pepper ($3 million), and Red Bull ($230,000). Only two other local trade groups have donated to the campaign, but neither donated enough to meet Carlyle's proposed $50,000 threshold.

Carlyle announced his legislation at El Centro de la Raza in North Beacon Hill. Estela Ortega, the center’s executive director, said I-1634 is part of a broader pattern of soda companies targeting communities of color.

“They are the same companies that disproportionally target youth and communities of color with millions of dollars in marketing for their unhealthy products leading to significantly higher rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes in communities of color,” Ortega said.

The campaign for I-1634 bills itself as banning grocery taxes in the state, but it is already illegal for local governments to place a sales tax on groceries. The initiative's corporate-funded organizers point to a loophole that allows local governments to apply a "privilege tax" to groceries, although it's not clear that anyone in the state has proposed using this loophole to tax groceries like vegetables or bread. The one thing that is clear is that soda taxes are currently legal in the state and other municipalities might copy Seattle and pass their own. This initiative would make it illegal to do so.

When I asked Melissa Schwartz, a spokesperson for the I-1634, if the campaign could produce any evidence of this loophole being used to tax groceries she pointed to "discussions" in Federal Way and Spokane but could not directly cite any evidence. She also said the soda company's initiative was aimed at preventing a slippery slope.

"Five years ago, we didn’t see a movement around taxing sweetened beverages. It’s fair to ask, what will be next? Taxes on meat? Non-organic food?" Schwartz said in an e-mail.

The campaign for I-1634 has been accused of intentionally spreading misinformation. I asked Ortega about one instance, captured by Univision’s Pablo Gaviria, of a Hispanic grocery store manager in North Seattle agreeing to record an ad in support of I-1634 because he thought it would stop grocery taxes. He later revoked his support and the ad when he realized the I-1634 campaign was really concerned with banning soda taxes.

“That… was a clear example. The gentleman was outraged and took back his position on that, so if it started there they are going to do other things and we see that evident in the lies that they spreading across the state," Ortega said.

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Carlyle said the soda companies are engaging in a nationwide effort to prevent local governments from following public health recommendations and enacting soda taxes. He said it’s a model that has been used by a series of unhealthy industries—the tobacco companies in the 1970s, the National Rifle Association in the 1980s, the oil companies in the 1990s. Carlyle said Arizona and Michigan have already passed a soda tax ban and voters in Oregon are currently considering one.

“We simply can’t compete against unlimited money but we can require transparency, require disclosure, require honesty. That’s the hallmark of what the people of Washington state expect and deserve,” Carlyle said.

Soda companies aren’t the only mega-corporations getting involved in Washington politics this year. The world’s largest petroleum companies have spent almost $26 million fighting Initiative 1631, which would place a fee on all carbon emissions. Carlyle’s proposed bill would affect them as well.