Soda Industry's "Selfish Giving"

CSPI Report Tells How Big Soda's "Philanthropy" Buys Friends, Silences Critics, and Sweetens Profits

March 19, 2013

The injunction issued last week by New York Supreme Court judge Milton A. Tingling against Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg's proposal to cap soda servings at restaurants at 16 ounces is viewed as a temporary setback by public health advocates (and by the city's lawyers). But according to a new report issued by the nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest, that case, in which the state chapter of the NAACP and the Hispanic Federation unexpectedly joined Big Soda's legal fight, is just the latest illustration of the persuasive power of "philanthropic" grants from the sugar-drinks industry.

Both groups received grants from Coca-Cola, with the national NAACP receiving at least $2.1 million from the soda giant since 1986, including $100,000 as recently as December. The Hispanic Federation also lists Coke as a donor, and in February 2012 its president, Lillian Rodriguez Lopez, left the nonprofit group to become director of Latin affairs at the company.

According to CSPI's report, Selfish Giving, the soda industry's targeted generosity doesn't stop with civil rights or minority groups. Over the years, the industry has given money to—and cultivated relationships with—groups representing doctors, dentists, dietitians, anti-hunger advocates, and others.

Sometimes, the industry's influence can be subtle, as when in 2009 a $600,000 grant from Coca-Cola paid for a health website for the American Academy of Family Physicians. While that site offers mild advice to consumers to choose water over sugary drinks, it does so with soft, industry-friendly language that echoes the industry's talking points, which often stress the need for "hydration." To the AAFP's credit, the group does support soda taxes, according to CSPI. And in 2003, a $1 million grant from Coca-Cola was seemingly enough to get the president of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry to suddenly hedge the group's position on the extent to which soda causes cavities.

Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Dr Pepper Snapple Group, the American Beverage Association, and Kraft Foods, maker of such sugar drinks as Kool Aid and Capri Sun, are also big donors to two major anti-hunger groups, the Food Research and Action Center and Feeding America. Those two groups, alongside the beverage industry, oppose barring the use of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (formerly known as Food Stamps) to purchase sugar drinks. FRAC and Feeding America are highly respected organizations, but CSPI says their opposition to changes that would improve their constituents' health raises questions about their longstanding ties to food and beverage companies.

When Big Soda is under siege, as it was in 2009 when defending against a possible national soda tax to pay for health care reform, it can leverage its nationwide network of grantees to leap to its defense. At least 22 of the 26 minority groups belonging to Americans Against Food Taxes, an industry-funded front group, had financial ties to the beverage industry. And some of the groups, such as the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities, joined the coalition despite a complete lack of prior engagement in nutrition or health policy.

The industry organized similar front groups to oppose a 2008 soda tax proposal in New York State and two 2012 soda-tax ballot initiatives in the cities of Richmond and El Monte in California. All of the tax proposals were defeated.

"Big Soda's giving isn't solely motivated by its love for the arts or its concern for minorities' or anyone else's health," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "Makers of sugar drinks give to burnish their soiled reputations. They give so they can soften, or even silence, potential criticism. But mainly the industry gives so when provoked it can activate an instant Astroturf army to advance its extreme, anti-health agenda."

The soda industry also is forging financial partnerships with city governments, which can have the effect of muting municipal leaders' criticism of sugar drinks, according to CSPI. Last year, Miami Beach; Dayton, OH; and Ocean City, MD, all signed deals making Coke the "official soft drink" of those cities. And while some cities were aggressively proposing taxes or prohibiting sugar drinks in public facilities, the American Beverage Association partnered with the cities of Chicago and San Antonio on a wellness contest centered on another favorite industry theme: personal responsibility over government intervention.

"I believe in personal responsibility," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told the Chicago Tribune, defending the city's participation in the $5 million contest. "I believe in competition, and I believe in cash rewards for people that actually make progress in managing their health care."

In contrast, another Mayor, Philadelphia's Michael A. Nutter, rejected an offer to fund anti-obesity efforts with a $10 million soda-industry grant channeled through the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. Local bottlers had proposed the program in the hope that the city would drop a proposed two-cent-per-ounce excise tax on sugar drinks, which would have been the highest in the nation.

"It seems to me that accepting money from the beverage industry to fight obesity would be like taking money from the NRA to fight gun violence or from the tobacco industry for smoking cessations, I mean, it's ludicrous," Nutter told The Philadelphia Inquirer.

The industry's philanthropic focus on African American and Latino organizations is particularly troubling because those communities suffer disproportionately from obesity and soda-related diseases. According to the Department of Health and Human Services' Office of Minority Health, African Americans are 50 percent more likely to be obese and more than twice as likely to die from diabetes as whites. Latinos are 20 percent more likely to be obese than white Americans and 50 percent more likely to die from diabetes. While beverage companies offer funding for physical activity and community education programs, they simultaneously target disproportionate volumes of sugar-drink advertising and cause-related marketing at minority audiences.

The soda industry's cooptation of nonprofit groups reminds some of the tobacco industry's tactics in the 1980s and 1990s, when it enlisted minority group grantees to oppose curbs on smoking or tobacco advertising. The New York state chapter of the NAACP, for instance, worked with the tobacco industry to oppose separate non-smoking areas in restaurants and other public facilities.

"The industry playbook is clear—make philanthropic donations to divide and conquer the very constituencies these policies would ultimately benefit," said Dr. Anthony Iton, senior vice president of The California Endowment, a private health-oriented foundation. "Big Soda has learned well from Big Tobacco. But as more Americans start to see through their cynical tactics, public opinion will shift to protect children, not profits."


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