Sweetening the deal?

Someone paid Internet users to join fight against sugar tax

Call it a case of a rogue advertiser: An Illinois business group is bewildered after an unknown someone paid Internet users to sign their petition against a proposed tax on sugary drinks.

The Illinois Coalition Against Beverage Taxes says it didn’t have anything to do with paid petition signatures solicited through a popular rewards website last week,

State Sen. Mattie Hunter, D-Chicago, has pushed for a statewide penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks for two years. The idea behind the bill is that raising the cost of soda and other sugary drinks would drive consumption down, making consumers healthier – especially people in lower income brackets who tend to drink the most soda. The revenue from Hunter’s legislation would be used for obesity prevention and Medicaid.

The coalition against Hunter’s legislation includes the Illinois Beverage Association, Illinois Chamber of Commerce, Illinois Manufacturers Association, Illinois Retail Merchants Association, Illinois Restaurant Association, Illinois Licensed Beverage Association, Illinois Policy Institute, Illinois Farm Bureau, agriculture giants ADM and Monsanto, a Chicago labor union and even the national conservative political group Americans for Prosperity. Many of the same groups also opposed a similar measure that was shot down by the Chicago City Council on Sept. 9.

While the Illinois Beverage Association and the American Beverage Association both run websites advocating against such tax proposals, both groups say they’re not sure who sponsored an advertising campaign that paid Internet users for signing up against the Illinois tax.

The paid petition signatures were collected by a pay-per-click advertising company called AdGate Media, based in New York. AdGate reached web users through a third-party rewards website, Swagbucks.com, which awards points to users for completing activities. The points, which roughly equal one cent each, can be converted into gift cards to popular retailers. A link on Swagbucks.com directed users to yourcartyourchoice.com, a website run by the American Beverage Association in opposition to beverage taxes. In exchange for following the link and signing a petition, Swagbucks rewarded users with 112 points, which equals about $1.12.

The site estimates that the cost of a 12-pack of soda will increase by $1.44 if Hunter’s legislation becomes law.

However, Jim Soreng, executive director of the Illinois Beverage Association, and William Dermody, vice president of policy for the American Beverage Association, say neither organization paid AdGate Media to entice Internet users to sign the petition. Soreng and Dermody say that after learning of the paid signature campaign, they investigated who was responsible. They spoke to their advertising buyers and even asked those buyers to talk to their contractors, all to no avail; no one knows who paid for the campaign.

Illinois Times’ emailed requests for comment from AdGate Media and Swagbucks were not returned by publication. Dermody says Swagbucks confirmed AdGate’s involvement to an ABA attorney but had no information about who actually sponsored the campaign, which is no longer active.

Hunter’s bill to tax sugary beverages, Senate Bill 1584, stalled in a Senate committee this legislative session, although it could be revived in the Illinois General Assembly’s fall veto session. House Bill 2667, identical to Hunter’s bill, stalled in the House this spring. Hunter told Illinois Times it would be “sinister and deplorable” if the opposition to her bill paid for petition signatures.

Hunter likens the beverage groups’ stance against her proposal to that of the tobacco industry, which denied for decades that its product harmed consumers.

“The detrimental health effects of too much sugar are undeniable, just like the effects of tobacco,” Hunter said. “We need public awareness programs to help people understand the effects of sugar. I’d like to work with companies to create these programs.”

Contact Patrick Yeagle at pyeagle@illinoistimes.com.

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