Mayors' Group Urged to Ditch Deal with Soda Industry

CSPI Says Beverage Lobby Wants to Undermine Mayors' Efforts to Reduce Soda Consumption

November 3, 2011

The United States Conference of Mayors should withdraw from a $3 million deal it forged with the soft drink industry’s lobbying arm, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The nonprofit health watchdog group says the American Beverage Association is more interested in undermining many mayors’ efforts to reduce soda consumption than in reducing childhood obesity, the ostensible purpose of the program.

In a CSPI letter to USCM executive director Tom Cochran, CSPI said that the soda industry has a long history of using similar grant programs to curry favor with key influencers or to silence potential critics, and that it was unseemly for the mayors’ group to encourage cities to apply for such tainted pots of money. While CSPI says that it would be hard to argue with the stated purpose of the program, “to encourage healthy weight through balanced diet choices and regular physical activity,” the group said the soda industry spends far more heavily to discourage healthy, balanced diets.

“Coke, Pepsi, and their lobbyists at the American Beverage Association are pouring millions of dollars into blocking or reversing much of the good work being done by courageous mayors who are trying to reduce soda consumption in order to fight obesity and reduce health-care costs,” said George Hacker, senior policy advisor for health promotion at CSPI. “This narrowly tailored grant program is specifically designed to exclude meaningful programs to reduce sugary-drink consumption in favor of highlighting unspecified ‘better solutions.’ Cities would be better off taxing soda and using that money to fund effective anti-obesity efforts.”

A press release on the USCM web site states that an independent panel will choose award recipients, but also says the “ABA will work with the conference to develop selection criteria.” Cities that take payments from the program would also be obligated to participate in a promotional press event alongside the ABA, according to the program’s materials.

According to CSPI, the sugary-drink industry often emphasizes “physical activity” in order to deflect attention from the calories in its products. But a new ad campaign from New York City’s health department dramatically shows how much physical activity is required to balance the calories in soda: One would have to walk three miles, or from Union Square to Brooklyn, in the ad’s words, to burn off the calories in one 20-ounce soda. CSPI says that’s the kind of municipal effort that other cities should replicate.

Health departments in Los Angeles and Boston, with the support of Mayors Antonio Villaraigosa and Thomas Menino, respectively, are also running campaigns to reduce sugary drink consumption in those cities. Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter has proposed imposing taxes on sugary drinks, a move bitterly opposed and ultimately defeated by the industry. Nutter also drew praise from health advocates for turning away a $10 million anti-obesity grant that originated from the American Beverage Association.

Over the years, CSPI has documented how the sugary-drink industry has used ostensible philanthropic programs to burnish its image in the eyes of health officials and the public. In 2009, Coca-Cola made a six-figure payment to the American Academy of Family Physicians to underwrite “consumer education content related to beverages and sweeteners.” In 2003, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry took a $1 million payment from Coca-Cola.

“We would not trust the American Foxes Association to administer a grant program aimed at securing the nation’s henhouses; nor should we trust the American Beverage Association to fund efforts aimed at improving the health of the nation’s children,” said Hacker.

Sugary drinks are the single largest source of calories in the American diet and account for half of all added sugars consumed. Sugary drinks have been shown to have a causal role in promoting obesity: Each additional sugary drink consumed per day increases the likelihood that a child will become obese by about 60 percent, according to one study. The American Heart Association recommends that people limit their intake of sugary drinks to about 450 calories per week, or about three 12-ounce cans. Average consumption is now more than twice that. CSPI and a number of cities and local and national health groups are partnering in a campaign called Life’s Sweeter with Fewer Sugary Drinks, which aims to reduce soda consumption by more than half by 2020.


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