by Marion Nestle
Mar 17 2011

Soda companies vs. soda taxes: breathtaking creativity

I keep telling you.   You can’t make this stuff up.  Try these for food politics–in this case, soda politics–in action.

Beverage Association gives $10 million to Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP)

From the Philadelphia Inquirer blog (March 16):

In keeping with a controversial pledge to made last year to City Council as part of an effort to ward off Mayor Nutter’s steep tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, the soft-drink industry will donate $10 million to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia to fund research into and prevention of childhood obesity.

The three-year grant is funded by a new organization, the Foundation for a Healthy America, created by the American Beverage Association, the national trade group representing manufacturers and bottlers. The ABA was instrumental in lobbying Philadelphia City Council to reject Nutter’s proposal to tax sugary drinks at 2-cents per ounce as a way to cut consumption and raise money for the general fund.

In a press release Wednesday, CHOP insisted that it will “retain absolute clinical and research independence,” as the source of its funding for the research is likely to come under attack from those wary of the beverage industry’s influence. That includes funding for clinical studies to be submitted to peer-reviewed publications.

Atkins Obesity Center publishes review of effects of soft drinks on obesity

In a delicious irony, the latest review of this topic comes from the Atkins Center at Berkeley.  Yes, the Atkins Diet Atkins, the one that promotes high-fat, low-carbohydrates, and has everything to gain from proving that sugars are bad for you.

With that duly noted, set the irony aside.  The review was funded by independent agencies and organizations.  Let’s take its results at face value.

The reviewers looked at five kinds of evidence: secular trends, mechanisms, observational studies, intervention trials and meta-analyses.  All supported the idea that

The currently available evidence is extensive and consistently supports the hypothesis that sweetened beverage intake is a risk factor for the development of obesity and has made a substantive contribution to the obesity epidemic experienced in the USA in recent decades.

Sweetened beverages are an especially promising focus for efforts to prevent and reduce obesity for two reasons: (i) the evidence supporting the association between sweetened beverage intake and excess weight is stronger than for any other single type of food or beverage; and (ii) sweetened beverages provide no nutritional benefit other than energy and water.

Coca-Cola funds North Carolina School of Public Health campaign against Childhood Obesity

Isn’t that nice of them?  The apparently unironical slogan of the campaign : “Everything in moderation.”

Robert Wood Johnson Foundation report, “F as in Fat”, features piece by PepsiCo’s CEO

Melanie Warner, writing on bNET, explains that the RWJ Foundation is usually scrupulously independent but that putting Pepsi’s PR piece into its document makes no sense.

A third of the way into the report, up pops a bizarre “personal perspective” from PepsiCo’s (PEP) CEO Indra Nooyi in which she details the many ways her company is working to make America healthier. “Helping consumers by building on our portfolio of wholesome and enjoyable foods is not just good business for PepsiCo -– it’s the right thing to do for people everywhere,” Nooyi chirps in a two-page soliloquy that reads like a press release and touts everything from Pepsi’s pledge to reduce the sodium in its products by 25% by 2015 to its reduced sugar drinks like Trop50 and G2. No other food company is mentioned, just Pepsi.

[This inclusion]…also ties into the ongoing debate about what role the food industry should play in helping Americans slim down. Are food companies trusted partners who are committed to fundamental changes, or is getting people to eat healthier versions of processed food really a whole lot of Titanic deck chairs?

As the research linking soft drinks to obesity gets stronger and stronger, it is no wonder that the Beverage Association is buying off city councils, and soft drink companies are eager to position themselves as helping to solve the problem of childhood obesity, not cause it.

Do these actions remind you of any other industry’s behavior?  Cigarette companies, anyone?

  • Unbelievable! This is in part becuase public health spending is a tiny fraction of big food spending on advertising. The amount towards healthy food promotion is even smaller, even counting the help from big foundations.

    Part of the tobacco settlement went to funding which finally gave more advertising dollars to the anti-smoking cause. I think regulation, taxes, social pressure and education, just like in the tobacco fight, are the real tools to fight obesity.

    Individuals have to make personal changes, but social policy can go a long way in helping support them.

  • None of this is very surprising. After doing the research, it became readily apparent that each individual (if interested) must make their own changes. You cannot wait for government, business or any other organization to assist.

    However, because of money and politics, we might see less junk food advertising this year … … NFL strike.

  • Anthro

    @Ken Leebow

    Personal choice is fine for those of us who make it our business to be well-informed, but what about children and those who (for a variety of reasons) are not so well informed? This is where public health efforts are critical and why the “food” industry tries so hard to marginalize their efforts.

    Parents, too, are undermined in their efforts to monitor their children, by advertising and marketing. It is a credible role for government to protect the citizenry–especially children–from the harm of predatory industries and shareholders who reap their profits from the ill health that plagues the obese.

    I think we are on the same page, but the better informed among us must continue to advocate for those who are not in the best interest of everyone. We all pay for the medical costs of obesity.

  • B.

    And when the Foundation for a Healthy America doesn’t like the results of the research, they will bury it!

  • @Anthro

    Yes, we are on the same page. But I’m reading it from a different direction (I did get so disgusted with the American food system that I wrote a book to assist people).

    Another interesting side note to this: Many people voluntarily partake (without being coerced) in our toxic food environment. Most of my peers make fun of my healthy-eating lifestyle.

    In my presentations, I use my “Main Street” as an example: 13 fast-food joints, 7 gas stations filled with toxic food, every store has checkout counters loaded with candy. And our latest addition: a cupcake store. It just celebrated 50,000 sold – that’s 1,000 over-the-top cupcakes sold per day!

    By the way, my “Main Street” has three CVS pharmacies on it (no need to explain why). And when I walk in any one of them, I’m not sure if I walked into a drug store or candy store.

    My “Main Street” is similar to most Main Streets throughout America. Thus the problem.

    So, we can try as hard as we want for government action, but I am not holding my breath.

    I do appreciate all the advocates trying to make change, but my head is soft and can only bang on a brick wall for so long.

    Ken Leebow

  • As an MD/PhD student at Penn studying the mechanisms behind obesity and insulin resistance, it disheartens me to learn about who CHOP does business with. That being said, I’m not surprised… look at what is attached next door:

  • The most effective deterrent to smoking has been the increase in taxes. The soda industry knows that fact and will do anything and everything in their power to stop that first tax. Because the soda gang, know that once there is tax, it will only increase over time.

    We need to create a parent group to DEMAND taxes on soda, vitamin water and sugar sweetened teas. And diet drinks too.
    Who’s with me? Let’s do it!

  • Anthro

    @Sarah Rubin

    I’m definitely with you Sarah. Let’s DO IT, indeed!


    I think I would argue that your main street examples offer evidence of
    coercion (subtly applied through marketing), not absence of same.

    Making “food” available everywhere is part of the marketing “strategy” that has led to the obesity epidemic.

    I’m with you on the plight of being the butt of “humor” about healthy eating. I get a lot of that and so does my poor husband who works with “regular guys” who have a real hoot when told that he had kale/beet salad for dinner. Note, however, that they are all overweight and he has lost thirty pounds since eating only at home or what I send with him. So let them laugh.

    The problem remains, however, in doing something about public health in general. You and I have licked the problem on our own, but we must not forget about all the kids out there who walk into your Main Street stores every day and are inundated by their wares.

  • simplynonna

    Have u heard about another new foundation-Foundation to Understand Cola & Kids;) Come on everybody, let’s FUCK our kids up!;)

  • T.C.

    As a prospective public health student, it disheartens me that both U.C. Berkeley and UNC (schools with well-established nutrition programs) have accepted funding from these companies. On the bright side, it took away any regret that I didn’t apply to either. Marion, I know you write in your book about conflict of interest at NYU – apparently these other schools could not turn away the $$. What a shame. On the day I read this, I also saw that ConAgra is starting a new obesity campaign. They say it will be significant, not just another ribbon campaign. Seriously?? A significant change would be providing truly healthy, affordable food in the first place, not giving away some frozen dinners to the poor.

  • This is just seriously messed up… I have recently given up soda (diet soda, in my case) and am feeling so good about it. But a lot of my friends and family still drink so much of it that it makes me sick.

    I really can’t believe some of this stuff. How can Coca Cola or Pepsi really help prevent childhood obesity? I remember drinking so much soda throughout middle and high school- no wonder I ended up at 200lbs! I finally lost it when I (among other things) switched to diet soda, but I can’t even imagine how this will impact the future of childhood obesity.

  • Johnbo

    I have an idea that will even help us further. Despite the fact that I have not been to a fast food restaurant in over a year, I drink diet sodas almost exclusively (when drinking sodas at all) and I don’t buy snacks like chips; I still have gained 20lbs in the last 6 months. What the problem lies in is that I consume too much of whatever I have, whether it be pasta, grilled chicken or orange juice. So what we need to do, to make sure that we force everyone to lead what some determine to be a healthy lifestyle, is to issue mandatory cards that everyone must use whenever they purchase any type of food or drink products. This way we can make sure each person lives by the healthy standards that our government has in place. Then, when I am hungry, I’ll only use four-fifths of a can of beans instead of the whole thing.

    Of course this is only step one. Once that is in the works, the next step is to install devices on everyones beds to guarantee that we are getting enough sleep. I mean the possibilities are endless! We can make people wear bracelets that charges us at a higher tax rate if we are out in the sun too long, or not enough. We can even make TVs that automatically turn off after 2 hours so that we don’t spend too much time in front of the tube instead of exercising. Oooh! How about toothpaste tubes that send a signal to a computer that charges a fee if we don’t brush our teeth enough. Just think how healthy and happy we’ll all be.

    Oh, but lets make pot legal.

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