University of São Paulo: Formula of the sugary drinks lobby starts in the discussion of bills

The sugar-sweetened beverage industry, such as soft drinks, exerts a very intense and effective lobby in the National Congress, confirms a survey by the USP’s Faculty of Public Health (FSP). The study analyzed the numbers on corporate financing of campaigns of congressmen who served between 2015 and 2019 and found that 48 of the 81 senators and 237 of the 513 federal deputies elected had campaign resources from the sector. According to the work, this influence was also attested in congressional votes and can be seen mainly in the difficulties in processing bills that modify the regulation and taxation of the beverage industry.

The survey assessed whether the corporate political activity of the sugary beverage industry and its inputs influenced the decision-making process on the taxation of sugary beverages in the 55th Legislature of the National Congress, between 2015 and 2019. and the sector’s lobbying with parliamentarians,” he says to Jornal da USPthe researcher Aline Mariath, author of the work. “In addition to dealing with an unprecedented topic, which is the financing of campaigns by beverage and input industries, we were able to take advantage of the last window of opportunity to study corporate campaign financing in Brazil, as this type of contribution was prohibited in 2015.” Despite the ban, lobbying continues to be practiced today in actions such as the participation of industry associations in public hearings that discuss bills of interest to companies, such as changes in taxation.

The identification of these groups was made from the databases referring to the rendering of electoral accounts, made available by the Superior Electoral Court (TSE). “As the cut would be for the 55th Legislature, for Senate candidates, as their terms of office last eight years, we used data referring to the 2010 elections, in which two-thirds of the senators were elected, and the 2014 elections in that one third of them was elected”, explains the researcher. “For federal deputies, who serve four-year terms, we only used data from the 2014 elections. A very thorough job was done both to identify among the donor companies which were related to the sectors of interest for the study and to group those that they were part of large business groups.”

Among the donors, it was possible to identify, in all, 56 business groups that produce sugary drinks and 62 groups that produce sugar and fruit concentrates, important inputs for this type of product. “These contributions benefited 96 candidacies for the Federal Senate and 585 for the Chamber of Deputies”, highlights Aline. “Among the elected senators, 48 ​​had campaign resources from the sector, that is, almost 60% of the composition of the house. Among federal deputies, practically half of those elected, 237 in total, received some campaign resources from these groups.”

Although lobbying activities with the public sector are not yet regulated in Brazil, the Chamber of Deputies maintains a register of representatives of entities, including business associations and employers’ unions. “Among the associations are, for example, the Brazilian Association of Soft Drinks and Non-Alcoholic Beverage Industries (Abir), whose members include multinational companies, the Soft Drink Manufacturers Association of Brazil (Afebras), which represents small and medium-sized industries, and the Sugarcane Industry Union (Unica), which includes some large sugar mills”, points out the researcher. “These associations also usually occupy a seat in public hearings that discuss proposals related to their areas of expertise.”

“An important point to mention is that, as lobbying activities are not regulated, there are, for example, lists with all lobbyists linked to companies or their associations, nor who are the decision makers approached by them individually, in their offices”, he declares. “This makes it very difficult to study the influence of these interest groups in decision-making processes in public policies. Despite this, the study made it clear that there is a very intense and effective lobbying by the soft drink industry in both houses of Congress.”

Unregulated lobby
Aline points out that a significant portion of Brazilian congressmen are businessmen, many linked to the agribusiness sector, and there are also those with direct links to the sugary drinks industry. “An important point to mention is that, as lobbying activities are not regulated, there are, for example, lists with all lobbyists linked to companies or their associations, nor who are the decision makers approached by them individually, in their offices”, he declares. “This makes it very difficult to study the influence of these interest groups in decision-making processes in public policies. Despite this, the study made it clear that there is a very intense and effective lobbying by the soft drink industry in both houses of Congress.”

According to the researcher, in Congress there is a wide variety of legislative proposals with the objective of regulating, to some extent, practices in the ultra-processed food and beverage industry that negatively impact the health of the population. “Only in the 55th Legislature (2015-2019), for example, 84 bills were identified in this regard”, he points out. “When these proposals are limited to the taxation of sugary drinks, there were a total of nine bills that proposed to increase taxation and two legislative decree bills that aimed to stop an act of the Executive Branch that indirectly increased the taxation of sugary drinks produced by large companies operating in the Manaus Free Trade Zone.”

Aline reports that one of these projects was voted and approved in the Senate plenary on July 10, 2018, when 12 senators with a history of financing an election campaign by soft drink industries operating in the Free Zone were in session and nine voted in favor of the interests of the sector. “This data cannot be taken in isolation, the criteria that lead to decision making can be quite subjective, and the decision-making process itself is usually explained by a variety of factors. For this reason, we apply a method called Comparative Qualitative Analysis (QCA), which seeks to point out which conditions explain a certain outcome”, he says. “This analysis confirmed that having campaign resources from companies in the sector was enough for parliamentarians to support private interests, even without having identified political compensation received by parliamentarians with economic interest in the project, either because they were representatives of Amazonas or own operations of one of the large multinationals interested.” At the Chamber, the project was shelved after a symbolic vote in December 2018, in what was considered a victory for small and medium-sized soft drinks industries, which do not operate in the Manaus Free Trade Zone.

“This influence can happen not only in the votes. In fact, it is much more likely to occur in intermediate stages of the legislative process, for example, the presentation of bills, favorable or contrary opinions to bills in progress, the inclusion or not of bills in the discussion agendas and deliberation of commissions and plenary sessions”, reports the author of the work. “Strategies can be used to deliberately delay decision making, or even cause a bill not to be voted on and then shelved at the end of a Legislature.”

“It is noteworthy that none of these strategies is illegal, they are provided for in the regulations of the legislative houses and are part of the political game in the legislative process. The great challenge is to be able to show that the decision in favor of a particular business sector was the result of campaign financing or lobbying with the congressman”, concludes the researcher.

The study was developed by Aline for a doctorate in the Graduate Program in Nutrition in Public Health at FSP, under the guidance of Professor Ana Paula Bortoletto Martins, a researcher at the Center for Epidemiological Research in Nutrition and Health at USP.

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