Messaging of public health policies is arguably just as important as the policies themselves. Passing and implementing policies is often contingent on favorable public opinion.
Researchers Sarah Gollust, Colleen Barry, and Jeff Nierderdeppe examined the question of partisan responses to a public health initiative —the sugary drink tax. Many cities across the U.S. have proposed such a policy. The tax is controversial, facing opposition fueled and funded by the soda companies. Currently, the sugary drink tax has been passed in Berkley, CA and Philadelphia, PA. It was rejected in New York City.
The study measured the effect of three messaging tactics. The pro-tax approach conveyed the message that sugary drinks should be taxed since they contribute to obesity. The two-sided message stated that sugary drinks cause obesity but taxes will not help. The refutation message said that soda companies are promoting anti-tax feelings for their own gain even though soda contributes to obesity.
The above graph shows the results of the different messages on participants in comparison to the control groups according to political party affiliation. The main takeaway here is that the refutation message resulted in the largest difference of opinion about soda taxes for Democrats and Independents in contrast to Republicans who were not influenced by negative messaging about company motives. A difference of 18.4 percentage points was observed between the Republicans and Democrats to the refutation message. No significant political difference was observed for the pro-tax message. And the two-sided message reduced support from all parties.
What does this mean for public health messaging? Past experience using refutation messaging against tobacco companies was quite successful moving policymakers to pass tobacco taxes. Current campaigns for the soda tax have begun to introduce rhetoric against soda companies. Messaging using “Big Soda” was the third most popular pro-tax argument in Richmond, El Monte, and Telluride, Colorado. If the study findings play out in real life, messages blaming soda companies for callous motives may be effective with Democrats and Independents but alienate Republicans. Failed experiments in many major U.S. cities to implement a soda tax shows just how ferocious the opposition can be. Philadelphia was the first major city in the U.S. to implement the tax. Mayor Jim Kenney pushed the tax as a much needed source of revenue instead of focusing on health benefits or “Big Soda.” The tax passed though it still faced opposition. Perhaps it is time to look outside the conventional arguments when policymakers are attempting to pass soda taxes.
Feature image: Message Effects on Sugary Drink Tax Support, by Political Party, Sarah E. Gollust et al., Journal of Health Politics, Policy and Law, Vol. 42, No. 6, December 2017 DOI 10.1215/03616878-4193606