Sweet talk for voters: a survey of persuasive messaging in ten U. S. sugar-sweetened beverage tax referendums

Robert W. Marriott, James Price Dillard

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

6 Scopus citations


America faces an obesity epidemic affecting both children and adults–one broadly tied to increased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs). Since 2012, taxes have been proposed as an effective means of reducing SSB consumption and raising revenue. Such taxes have been the subject of voter referendums and have elicited persuasion campaigns by stakeholder groups interested in their passage or failure. This paper provides a picture of the evolution of tactics used to address the public on the subject of SSB taxes, and the persuasive setting of voter referendums as a whole. This study gathered and analyzed pro- and anti-tax messaging from all US SSB tax referendums from 2012 through 2018. The methods and strategies used in each campaign are identified. Common themes and arguments are distinguished and a set of decisions that appeared to heavily influence referendum outcomes are discussed. In summary: (1) Tax proponents must offer a cohesive justification of a new tax, while opponents can sow doubt about it from a number of contradictory directions. (2) The overt politicization of tax debates is an effective anti-tax method. (3) Associating anti-tax messages with the SSB industry can provide a stronger pro-tax framing than the direct public health or tax revenue arguments. (4) Anti-tax messages framing an SSB tax as a ‘grocery tax’ may be effective, but only if the claim not subjected to strong media or legal scrutiny.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)477-486
Number of pages10
JournalCritical Public Health
Issue number4
StatePublished - 2021

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health


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