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How Coca-Cola fought for our right to be obese

My buddy Tom Hamburger of the L.A. Times has published another peek inside the health care sausage factory. This one is not mostly about powerful lobbies using their Washington operations, backed by campaign contributions and the threat of TV ads, to get its way. This little case study is closer to what they call astroturf lobbying.

The short version of the tale is that Coca-Cola and others who make a lot of money selling soft drinks (this includes big fast-food chains -- McDonald’s and Domino’s were named in the piece) were able to recruit a lot of organizations that represent poor people to join them in opposing the idea of putting a tax on sugared beverages.

The idea behind the tax is it would discourage consumption of sugared beverages, which contributes to the American plague of obesity, which is a major source of our unhealthiness.

Obesity-induced diabetes hits Hispanic youth especially hard.

So how did the beverage industry get the Hispanic Alliance for Prosperity, the National Hispana Leadership Institute, the League of United Latin American Citizens and even the National Hispanic Medical Association, which represents 36,000 Latino doctors and focuses on health issues, to join the group  the beverage-sellers created, called Americans Against Food Taxes?

One way: They argued that the tax would be regressive and would fall most heavily on Hispanics (apparently true, because Hispanic youth drink more than their share of fattening soft drinks). See that’s sorta the idea, to see if a small tax on sweetened drinks, might encourage those who drink too much to drink less of it.

Second way:  (quoting from the Hamburger piece):

“Nearly all of the Latino groups, including the medical association, had received beverage industry money in the past or have industry representatives on their governing boards.

The medical association's director, Dr. Elena Rios, said the financial support -- which amounted to no more than $10,000 from a single company -- had nothing to do with the decision to oppose the tax, which she and the other Latino groups agreed would hurt minority communities. She also said the evidence is not clear that the tax would effectively reduce obesity. On Friday, Rios said her organization had decided to withdraw from the industry coalition.”

Third way: The anti-soft-drink-taxers were able to point to scientific studies that disputed or downplayed the role of soft drinks in American obesity. From the piece:

“The American Beverage Assn. website for the campaign against the soda tax points to three studies in peer-reviewed journals that dispute a link between soda and obesity. One was conducted by an author working for Archer Daniels Midland, a major producer of high-fructose corn syrup. Two were conducted by a researcher who now works for the beverage association; one of those studies was funded by a grant from the association.

Despite the funding source, ‘the researchers worked independently and their findings were published in a peer-reviewed journal. That's the gold standard in the scientific community,’ [Kevin Keane, senior vice president, public affairs, for the American Beverage Assn.] said.”

It’s important to note. The idea of the sugar-soft-drink tax was never part of the big health care bill. There were members of the House who expressed some interest in the idea. Pres. Obama himself, in an interview with Men's Health magazine, that such a tax was an "idea that we should be exploring."

First Lady Michelle Obama has chosen child obesity as one of the causes to which she will devote her influence, and is supposed to unveil some of her ideas for healthier eating today. I don’t guess it would be the job of the FLOTUS to suggest something like taxing sugared drinks.

Of course, the proceeds from a sugared drink tax could contributed to paying for the health care bill or even just to deficit reduction.

One more thing I like about Tom’s story, although this wasn’t a point he emphasized: The health care bill focuses mostly on changing health insurance. But if we think of the ultimate goal as a healthier population, many things could be done that have little or nothing to with insurance or doctors or hospitals. I’ve written on this theme before. If we did nothing about health insurance but reduced poverty and obesity, we might add more years to U.S. healthiness and life expectancy than if we got everyone insured.

There’s quite a bit more detail in Tom’s piece. And one more thing I remember him telling me about that got left out in the editing. Among those who publicly spoke against the soda tax was Bill Clinton. Tom checked the donors to the Clinton Trust. Sure enough, Coca-Cola, big time. $5 million.

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Comments (10)

Coke markets VitaminWater as a healthful alternative to soda by labeling its several flavors with such health buzz words as "defense," "rescue," "energy," and "endurance." The company makes a wide range of dramatic claims, including that its drinks variously reduce the risk of chronic disease, reduce the risk of eye disease, promote healthy joints, and support optimal immune function.

In fact, according to CSPI nutritionists, the 33 grams of sugar in each bottle of VitaminWater do more to promote obesity, diabetes, and other health problems than the vitamins in the drinks do to perform the advertised benefits listed on the bottles.

This issue just points up the fact that now *everything* is for sale in this country. Our broken discourse, where every discussion must be "balanced" for right wing political correctness, is beyond worthless, it is downright dangerous, even to our health.

Where is the evidence in Eric's article that led you to believe "right wing political correctness" is the reason this tax has not gained more political support?

Dan - there isn't - in Black's piece. However, if you have followed discourse in this country for the past 30 years you know the pressure that has been put on the traditional media to include right wing voices everywhere, no matter the nonsense they spout. You need look no further than the Strib, where former editorial staffers have told stories of trying to look for a sane right winger to include every day. There can't be logical discourse when one side hates the very notion of government.

Taxing the sugar is targetting the symptom. A more accurate diagnosis would focus on targetting the disease: cheap sugar, which in this case is cheap high-fructose corn syrup. Cheap corn syrup is, of course, made from cheap corn. Why is corn cheap? Ag subsidies. So, rather than creating a new bureaucracy to implement a tax on a product that we're subsidizing, why don't we just cut to the chase & stop the subsidies?

I suppose the answer to that question lies in the makeup of the Senate - where there are surely 40 breadbasket senators, including our own, who will filibuster any serious ag reform.

I find it interesting that just below this article on the homepage is a Susan Perry column about a link between soda and pancreatic cancer.

Point noted and well-taken. Still, this particular tax, one I think sensible, seems to be thwarted by wonderfully bipartisan venality. The right-wing conspiracy talk is extraneous and distracts from the real problem.

Regardless of the nefarious activities of the Coca-Cola lobby to block this tax (which are repeated over and over again whenever legislation threatens someone's profits), I think this tax is a stupid idea. It's not going to prevent obesity because there is an almost infinite number of cheap calorie sources out there to replace soda calories. You can't tax them all. I agree that the tax will fall most heavily on those with lower incomes. In fact, the whole effort is unpleasantly reminiscent of the Victorian notion that the "appetites of the poor" must be controlled and repressed for the good of society.

Cutting agricultural subsidies to corn growers makes infinitely more sense if indeed high fructose corn syrup is the culprit many believe it to be. But I agree with the posters above that political factors make that impossible.

What the tax WOULD do is raise revenue at a time when government at all levels is desperate for new funds. If that's the goal, then be honest about it. But don't kid yourself that people are going to become magically thinner or healthier because of it.

Given the controversy surrounding High Fructose Corn Syrup a tax seems a logical way to protect kids. Granted, the soda makers could exchange sugar for the HFCS, but it would be more costly, and, presumably, consumption would go down.

I agree that ending the subsidies on corn syrup is the easiest place to start. The Democrats can even claim it as shrinking the size of government.

The whole system of agricultural subsidy needs to be revamped to balance it toward healthier calories. The recent (2009) improvements to the WIC program to focus more on fresh fruits and vegetables is a good first step.