Framing and Themes of the City of Boulder's Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Tax Coverage in the Local News from 2016-2018

Open AccessPublished:January 19, 2023DOI:


      • This study analyzed public arguments on an SSB tax pre- and post-implementation.
      • News articles were coded for type, authors, frame, themes, and evidence.
      • Pro-tax themes included health, fund benefits, equity, and unethical soda industry.
      • Anti- themes included economic effects, government overreach, and ineffectiveness.
      • Anti- arguments tried to leverage local issues against SSB tax policy.



      The objective of this paper was to analyze the contents of opinion and news articles related to the city of Boulder's sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) excise tax campaigns in Boulder's only local newspaper.


      We searched for articles in The Daily Camera related to the SSB tax, published from January 2016-December 2018. We conducted a content analysis, categorizing 152 relevant articles by type, authors, frames (pro, anti, neutral) based on the preponderance of arguments, themes, and use of evidence.


      The majority of articles were opinion (n=92) vs. news (n=60). The majority were proframe (n=78) vs. anti-frame (n=37) and neutral-frame (n=29). Pro-frame articles were more likely to cite evidence in support of arguments or the professional credentials/experience of the authors. The most frequent pro-frame themes were health, benefits of the revenues, equity, and unethical tactics of the industry. The most frequent anti-frame themes were economic consequences, claims that the measure was confusing, government overreach, and ineffectiveness of taxes. The leveraging of local issues by the beverage industry was observed.


      Themes identified in the news regarding Boulder's successful SSB tax may appear in future SSB policy campaigns and should be anticipated.


      Evaluations of sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) excise taxes in several U.S. cities, Mexico, and other countries have demonstrated that SSB taxes meaningfully reduce SSB consumption and purchasing while generating funds for community health and equity programs.1-10 The nation's first SSB excise tax was adopted by voters in Berkeley, CA in 2014. In 2016, Boulder, CO along with Oakland, San Francisco, and Albany, CA also enacted SSB taxes via ballot initiatives.11 Boulder's SSB tax measure was launched in Spring of 2016 by the volunteer organization, Healthy Boulder Kids, and supported by the non-profit, Healthier Colorado. The 2016 opposition, “No on 2H: Stop the Beverage and Grocery Tax,” was funded by the American Beverage Association (ABA).
      The pro-tax campaign had three periods: 2016 ballot measure, 2017 efforts to implement the tax as intended, and 2018 Taxpayer's Bill of Rights (TABOR)-related ballot measure, specific to Colorado's context.12 The SSB tax was passed by 54% of Boulder voters in November 2016 and went into effect July 1, 2017, levying a two-cent-per-fluid-ounce excise tax on distributors of SSBs containing ≥5 grams of caloric sweetener per 12 fl oz.13 The policy also established the City's Health Equity Fund, which provides grants to community organizations and agencies promoting health equity. All revenues, minus costs of tax collection and fund administration, have been awarded through this fund, totaling $17 million since implementation.14 The 2017 phase involved city council decisions around implementation issues like tax exemptions and establishing the Health Equity Advisory Committee. The TABOR ballot measure (which asked voters to approve having any tax revenues beyond the measure's projected estimate remain within the Health Equity Fund instead of being returned to SSB distributors) was passed by 65% of voters in November 2018.
      With the ABA funding the opposition in a presidential election year, the 2016 campaign was the most expensive in city history and frequently covered in the local newspaper. The framing and themes of pro- and anti-arguments can provide insights for SSB campaigns elsewhere and for public health policy campaigns more generally. Prior research has examined media coverage and framing of SSB tax policy in Oakland, Berkeley, and San Francisco, CA and public testimony to the Philadelphia City Council.15-17 Themes included, for instance, the health risks of SSBs and revenue benefits for community programs in pro-framed media, as well as ideological and economic (e.g., regressivity, “grocery tax”) arguments and the leveraging of local issues by anti-framed media.
      To date, there have been no published studies of media coverage or framing of Boulder's tax measure. Boulder's 2018 TABOR vote, which was required by Colorado tax law because tax revenues exceeded projected estimates, provides a unique opportunity to examine community perspectives on an SSB tax one year into implementation. Another unique feature of Boulder is that it has only one daily newspaper—The Daily Camera—which heavily covered the SSB tax.
      Therefore, we sought to analyze the framing and themes of all SSB tax-related articles from January 2016 through December 2018 in The Daily Camera. Earned media (i.e., articles either deemed newsworthy by the newspaper staff or submitted freely by citizens as opinion pieces) can provide insight into community points of view. These perspectives can inform public health communications on SSB taxes, which have continued to be important in public discourse post-implementation.


      We used the publicly-accessible database, NewsBank, to search for relevant articles from The Daily Camera, which has a circulation of 20,000 for 108,250 residents (2020 Census). We used search terms like “sugar-sweetened beverage,” “soda tax,” and “2H” (see Appendix Table 1 for complete list). Inclusion criteria were: a primary focus on the SSB tax and publication date within January 1, 2016 and December 31, 2018. Of 224 retrieved articles, 152 were relevant and included in the sample (see Appendix Table 2 for article list). We categorized these into news (authored by staff writer) or opinion (editorial, op-ed, letter to the editor [LTE]) based on the article's official designation. Articles were coded for type (news or opinion), author and self- or news staff-identified affiliation, policy frame (pro, anti, neutral based on the preponderance of pro- or anti-tax arguments presented and quoting of speakers in support and/or opposition), use of evidence (describing outside sources to bolster their argument), and themes.
      Table 1Themes and their abbreviated descriptions in the study codebook
      Pro-tax themesDescription
      Unethical actions of “Big Soda”Unethical tactics of the American Beverage Association (ABA) and soda industry, targeted marketing, comparisons to the tobacco industry
      HealthChild health, health risks of sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) consumption
      Healthcare costsCosts borne by society from negative health effects of SSB consumption
      EquityHealth disparities, health equity, social justice
      Funding benefitsBenefits of the tax revenue (e.g., through the Health Equity Fund)
      EfficacyExamples of SSB tax efficacy elsewhere or of other excise taxes (e.g., tobacco)
      ClarityRebuttal to the argument that the measure is confusing or difficult to implement
      Not regressiveRebuttal to the argument that the SSB tax is regressive
      Not a grocery taxRebuttal to the argument that the tax amounts to a grocery tax
      CommunityBenefits, brings together, or is the right message for the Boulder community
      Anti-tax themes
      UnnecessaryBoulder is already a healthy place; everyone already knows SSBs are unhealthy
      Government overreachGovernment overreach, or slippery slope
      ResponsibilityPersonal choice/responsibility, parental authority
      SSB tax does not workSSB taxes do not work; the tax is not doing what it is supposed to
      EconomicHurt local business, personal cost burden
      RegressiveThe tax will disproportionately burden poor families
      Confusing or burdensome to implementBusinesses are uncertain about how it will affect them, implementation challenges
      KombuchaThe tax hurts kombucha businesses, which make lower or natural sugar drinks
      Grocery taxThe tax amounts to a grocery tax and will raise the price of all groceries
      Neutral themes
      PoliticsWhat the two campaigns are doing or how those actions interacts with the city government and courts
      Campaign financingHow campaigns were financed
      Colorado Tax Payer Bill of Rights (TABOR)Legality of the measure within Colorado tax law
      Table 2News articles by type (news or opinion) and policy frame
      Article type
      Policy frame
      Determined by the preponderance of pro- or anti-tax arguments or neutral themes presented and quoting of speakers in support and/or opposition. Neutral frame was coded if there was a similar distribution of arguments for and against the tax or only neutral themes.
      Opinion, n (%)News, n (%)Total, n (%)
      Pro59 (64)19 (32)78 (51)
      Anti30 (33)7 (12)37 (24)
      Neutral3 (3)34 (57)37 (24)
      a Determined by the preponderance of pro- or anti-tax arguments or neutral themes presented and quoting of speakers in support and/or opposition. Neutral frame was coded if there was a similar distribution of arguments for and against the tax or only neutral themes.
      Table 1 contains abbreviated theme descriptions (see Appendix Table 3 for complete descriptions). We developed a codebook of themes through an inductive rather than a priori approach based on an initial reading of all articles and an iterative process of coding, comparing, and discussing codes among the team. All themes in an article were coded and counted. For example, if a news article presented quotes from a supporter about the health equity benefits from SSB tax revenues, as well as an opponent arguing that the tax was government overreach, both themes would be coded—one as “funding benefits” and the other as “government overreach.” All articles were coded by the first author, and 10% of the articles were independently coded by the last author with intercoder reliability at 89% agreement for coded themes and 100% for article frame. Microsoft Excel was used for coding. Because human subjects were not involved, IRB approval was not required.


      The 152 articles were written by 91 unique authors. Table 2 shows the distribution of articles by type and frame. Most articles (61%) were opinion (n=92: LTE=69, OpEd=15, Editorial=8), and 39% (n=60) were news. Among opinion articles, the majority (n=59, 64%) were categorized as pro-frame, presenting mostly arguments in favor of the tax, with the remainder anti-frame articles presenting mostly arguments against the tax (n=30, 33%). Among news articles, 57% were neutral-frame (n=34), presenting a similar distribution of arguments for and against the tax or neither, while 32% were pro-frame (n=19). Twenty-two (28%) of the total 78 pro-frame articles cited research to support their statements or arguments versus 3 (8%) of the 37 anti-frame articles. In 48 (62%) of the pro-frame articles, authors mentioned their own credentials or experience as an authority including parents, nutritionists, healthcare providers, non-profit leaders, program clients, and educators versus 6 (16%) of the anti-framed articles.
      Figure 1 shows themes by campaign period and frame. Pro-frame arguments focused largely on health (e.g., child health, dental health, health consequences of SSBs) and benefits of the Healthy Equity Fund, particularly in 2018, when organizations and individuals benefiting from the fund revenues submitted opinion pieces and were interviewed in news articles (see Appendix Table 4 for citations of articles associated with the following quotes):“I have seen the direct benefits the tax has provided through direct patient services, program development and community building" (1).
      Figure 1
      Figure 1Counts of themes identified in Daily Camera articles on the SSB tax by campaign period and frame
      Caption: TABOR—Colorado Tax Payer Bill of Rights
      Other pro-frame arguments referred to unethical tactics of the soda industry and their targeted marketing to children and communities of color:"When I read that the conglomerate soda beverage companies…are pouring huge amounts of money into Boulder to persuade us, I took offense” (2),and equity (health disparities, racial and social justice):“Much like gun violence, these chronic diseases are strongly associated not just with racial disparity, but also with chronic poverty and barriers to education” (3).
      Articles arguing for effectiveness of soda taxes typically cited studies from Mexico and Berkeley. Some pro-framed articles presented arguments responding to anti-tax themes and misinformation, such as rebutting the arguments that the tax was confusing, regressive, and a tax on groceries.
      Anti-frame arguments focused primarily on economic consequences and the common perception that Boulder already over-regulates local businesses:"…everyone who wanted a soda would just buy it outside the city, thus reducing the patronage and tax revenue from our local grocery and convenience stores” (4),government overreach and the slippery-slope argument that it would lead to more taxes:"What is next? A ban on ice cream at public swimming pools? A tax on cookies and pie, or salt, or meat?" (5),personal responsibility:"My wife and I managed to raise our children and manage their sugar intake without a tax. . . . Do we need to address uninformed and lazy thinking by more regulations and taxes?” (6),and the idea that taxes don't work and are unnecessary, particularly in a “healthy” community like Boulder is perceived to be:"Taxes don't fight obesity; healthy lifestyle choices do" (7).
      The only health-oriented con argument came from a local kombucha founder who argued that their lower-sugar drinks, as part of Boulder's celebrated natural and organic products industry, were providing an alternative to sodas and alcohol and should not be taxed.
      Neutral articles during the 2016 ballot measure covered campaign financing, TABOR, both campaigns’ tactics, and SSB policy nationally. Conflict and confusion between the pro- and anti-tax campaigns around polling, signatures, ballots, ABA lawsuits, and financing were highly covered. In 2018, the ABA did not fund an opposition, nor did they fund individuals to oppose the measure. Local news, in trying to present balance without an anti-spokesperson, often filled this void with vaguely attributed references to opposition arguments:“Restaurant and store owners have spoken out against the added expense… Still others contend the higher-than-expected revenue shows the tax's stated goal — of discouraging consumption — has not been met” (8).


      This analysis of SSB tax coverage in Boulder's only newspaper showed that a majority of articles were opinion and pro-frame, containing a preponderance of pro-tax arguments. Pro-frame authors were more likely than anti-frame to cite personal or professional expertise and to use evidence. Pro-framed articles appealed to concepts of community and social justice, perceived unethical actions of the ABA and soda industry, and support from community organizations and individuals who benefit from SSB tax funding. The anti-framed articles showed repetition of simple messages; appeals to ideological arguments, individual preferences, and local business; and leveraging concurrent local concerns like pride in Boulder's healthy food industry, which produced some taxable products, and perceived high regulation of local business.
      Many themes overlapped with those found in analyses of other SSB campaigns, including exploitation of local concerns by the ABA.15-18 The 2018 vote to keep tax revenue for use by the Health Equity Fund passed by a larger margin than the original 2016 measure. Pro-arguments in the 2018 campaign focused largely on community and funding benefits, which aligns with findings and recommendations from Berkeley and Philadelphia.8,17 The focus on community and funding benefits may have played a role in the high public support for the 2018 measure since public support is higher when an SSB tax is framed as funding health and public programs, rather than as a nutrition intervention or means to fill general funding gaps.19,20 Overall, there were more pro-framed articles than anti-framed, but there was expressed skepticism from news staff about motivations behind the tax and the inclusion of affected communities, which may indicate the centering of public health advocates rather than affected community members in the campaign’ outward-facing aspects.


      This is the first study to analyze news framing of Boulder's successful SSB tax measures. Due to Colorado's unique TABOR law, a novel contribution was the analysis of public arguments surrounding an SSB tax after implementation, when it was again the subject of a local measure. Limitations include assessing only earned media, and from one newspaper–albeit Boulder's only daily. Official and social media campaign messages were not assessed. Lastly, generalizability to other jurisdictions is uncertain and hinges on local context like lawsuits and opposition campaigns.


      Findings identified themes in Boulder that may arise in future SSB-tax campaigns. For successful policy adoption, proponents must prepare arguments, anticipate anti-arguments, and prepare rebuttals. Recommendations for doing so have been developed.5,21,22 Anticipating how local issues will arise is important; Boulder-specific issues were the belief that Boulder is already a healthy place, concerns about taxing local kombucha, and the perception that businesses are over-regulated. The analysis of the 2018 campaign after implementation can help communities and advocates understand ongoing SSB tax perceptions, which may be important in countering potential repeal campaigns. The media focus on funding benefits, together with the subsequent high support for the 2018 measure, suggests the importance of ensuring that messages from affected communities and those who will benefit from tax-revenue-supported equity programs are heard.


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      CRediT author statement

      Kirsten Daly: Conceptualization, Investigation, Data Curation, Methodology, Formal analysis, Visualization, Writing - Original Draft. Meredith Fort: Formal analysis, Methodology, Writing - Review & Editing. Jennifer Falbe: Formal analysis, Methodology, Supervision, Writing - Original Draft.

      Declaration of interests

      The authors declare that they have no known competing financial interests or personal relationships that could have appeared to influence the work reported in this paper.
      The authors declare the following financial interests/personal relationships which may be considered as potential competing interests:
      Jennifer Falbe reports financial support was provided by National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Jennifer Falbe reports financial support was provided by National Institute of Food and Agriculture. KD was an unpaid volunteer for Healthy Boulder Kids, a nonprofit that advocated for the Boulder sugary drink tax during the time period of the campaigns from 2016-2018.


      Funding: JF was supported by NIH/NIDDK K01DK113068 and USDA/NIFA Hatch project 1016627. The content is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views or policy of the NIH or the USDA.

      Appendix. Supplementary materials