Remember Mayor Nutter's proposal to tax sugary drinks?

The most aggressive soda-tax proposal in America died in Philadelphia almost a year ago, and no one is talking of reviving Nutter's 2-cents-per-ounce tax idea in this, an election year.

But here and across the nation, the debate over sugary drinks rages on - with some new twists.

The Nutter administration has ramped up its campaign against such drinks. And the industry is fighting back - in part by quietly gathering information about that campaign.

With the help of $15 million in federal stimulus money to combat obesity, the city is working to put fresh food in stores, increase biking and walking, and reduce Philadelphians' sweet-drink intake.

"Cut back on sugary drinks," pronounces a television ad developed and circulated by the city with $850,000 of the stimulus aid.

The ad shows a mother and her plump son in a car. The distraught mom frets about her child's weight and eyes the drink in the cup-holder.

The industry wants to know all about the money behind such ads. And it's not just a local fight. As budgets are drawn up in states and cities across the country, the debate is cranking up again, with new soda-tax proposals in Texas, Hawaii, California, and Utah.

The beverage companies won last year in Washington state, where a 2-cents-per-12-ounce tax approved in spring was repealed in a fall referendum. The industry also trounced initiatives in New York, New Mexico, and California.

And the food and beverage industry knows a thing or two about spending money to influence opinion: It spent $99 million on lobbying in 2009 and 2010, much of it fighting soda taxes. That was up from $38 million in 2007 and 2008.

Now beverage companies are gathering ammunition for a new counteroffensive against "attack ads" such as Philadelphia's. The American Beverage Association on Friday acknowledged it was behind broad Freedom of Information Act requests made to health departments in Philadelphia, New York City, and Seattle and to the Centers for Disease Control.

Why the requests?

The beverage trade group wants inside details of how the city used federal stimulus funding to craft messages targeting sugary drinks, spokesman Kevin Keane said Friday.

"They're spending taxpayer dollars - meant to create jobs - to fund attack ads that will actually discourage the creation of jobs," Keane said. Jobs, that is, connected to the sale of soft drinks.

Philadelphia officials answered the request, which asked for all "analyses, data, paper, and electronic correspondence, etc.," used to make assertions on Foodfitphilly.org, a site sponsored by the city Health Department.

Those assertions include: "If you drink just one soda per day and keep eating as you normally would, you would drink nearly 90,000 calories in a year and gain 25 pounds."

Donald F. Schwarz, deputy mayor for public health, defended the messages, saying, "We're not allowed to tax, we're not allowed to raise price - but we're allowed to raise awareness."

Schwarz said the beverage group had used lawyers to make the information requests without revealing itself as the client. "I have to wonder why they didn't just ask," he said.

That returns the argument to the classic comparison critics make, likening Big Beverage to Big Tobacco.

"This is clear and outright harassment by beverage companies to try and make life difficult for public health officials who are trying to improve the public's health," said Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, which champions cutting intake of sugary drinks.

Brownell and Schwarz argue that a drop in sugary-drink intake would spur sales of healthier alternatives, from water to diet drinks.

The industry isn't blinking.

"We've never walked away from the fact that our products have calories in them. The challenge is, how do you balance those calories within a balanced diet?" Keane said.

He pointed to the industry's efforts to more prominently display calorie content on each bottle. Then there is the national campaign to put healthier drinks in schools. Locally, the industry is expected to soon announce a multimillion-dollar health initiative it promised last year in lieu of a soda tax.

"Our critics are always trying to tie us to tobacco, and that's just ridiculous," Keane said.

A sugary-drinks tax won't happen here this year, but Nutter has not ruled it out for the future - particularly after his $15 million stimulus grant runs out.

"We have not stopped thinking about the issue of obesity or how best to fund programs to fight that chronic health issue," said Nutter spokesman Mark McDonald, "and a sugar-sweetened-beverage tax of some kind remains one of many possibilities."

Contact staff writer Jeff Shields at 215-854-4565 or jshields@phillynews.com.