Paul Tullis's Grim Tidings

Bitter musings on politics and policy

Obesity industry: 1 Democracy: 0

with 6 comments

Score another victory for free speech.

The L.A. Times reported Sunday that the beverage industry, led by Coke and Pepsi, has successfully quashed efforts in Congress to help pay for their contribution to the nation’s obesity epidemic with a tax on the nutrition-free products they sell.

Only months ago, public health advocates thought the tax would be a natural for congressional Democrats looking for revenue to fund expanded health insurance coverage. The soaring costs of treating ailments related to excess weight — including diabetes and heart disease — added urgency to the issue.

But the White House staff reviewing funding options never embraced the idea even after President Obama expressed interest last summer. A key congressional committee, after initially seeming receptive, ended up refusing to consider it. Several minority advocacy groups, including some committed to fighting obesity, lined up against the tax after years of receiving financial support from the industry.

So with the same astroturf strategy employed by the oil industry to sow doubt about climate change–fund a group fronting as a grassroots effort offering bogus science to sow doubt about the life-threatening effects of the product you sell–another big business group kills the public interest so it can go on reaping profits.

If corporations are people too, Coke and Pepsi are laughing all the way to the bank over this one.

In the past couple of decades, groups receiving funding from ExxonMobil and the like have convinced journalists of the need for “balance” in discussion about issues over which there is little or no debate, such as the human contribution to global warming, and consequently appeared in the media to debunk decades of independent research by many of the world’s best scientists. “Climate change” is a term invented by Republican pollster Frank Lutz which the Consumer Energy Alliance–which has nothing to do with consumers–and the Institute for Energy Research–whose research results are pre-oradained by their polluting funders–adopted as a harmless-sounding alternative.

It was a brilliant investment on the oil industry’s part, as the percentage of the American public recognizing the danger of climate…um, whoops, global warming…has diminished as its astroturf groups have grown more prominent, and meaningful legislation to reduce emissions is now stalled in the Senate (to put it optimistically).

This time, in a lobbying and PR effort well detailed by reporters Tom Hamburger and Kim Geiger, Coke and Pepsi went one step further. They not only erected the populist-sounding “Americans Against Food Taxes” to speak their case (never mind the only Americans they were representing were corporations, not people; and the tax was to be on drinks, not food) but funded existing groups supposedly acting in the interest of Latinos and placed industry representatives on their boards.

Using the argument that higher food and drink taxes would unfairly burden the poor, the coalition recruited a bevy of Latino groups, among them the Hispanic Alliance for Prosperity Institute, the National Hispana Leadership Institute and the League of United Latin American Citizens…

“Why in the world would a Hispanic health advocacy group do this?” asked Kelly Brownell, the director of Yale University’s Rudd Center on Food Policy and Obesity.

A stunning chart in the Times’ print edition shows a rise from about $4,000,000 in spending by Coke, Pepsi, and their trade group the American Beverage Asssn. on lobbyists in 2008, to $37,500,000–nearly a tenfold rise–in 2009.

It sure paid off. Although Yale estimates

that a penny-an-ounce tax would induce a 23% drop in consumption, and the Congressional Budget Office has estimated that a smaller tax could raise $50 billion over 10 years

the Times reported, industry’s success at misrepresenting available science and attacking some of the most respected nutritionists in the country as biased overcame such facts as what UCLA researchers found:

adults who drink one or more sodas per day are 27% more likely than non-soda drinkers to be overweight or obese.

This is a clear example of why the Supreme Court decision in January, unleashing corporate cash into the political process, is so dangerous: The ones with the most money get what they want, even though it’s bad for the citizens.

Soda is bad for people’s health (see the UCLA study). Taxing stuff that is bad for people discourages people from consuming the bad stuff (see: cigarettes). Fewer bad things happen to people as a result (diabetes, heart disease). What could be a more obvious case of the public interest?

Not in America, though, land of unfettered free speech for pieces of paper.

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6 Responses

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  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Bernette Williams and Tweets Tube, Carrie Schneider. Carrie Schneider said: Obesity industry: 1 Democracy: 0: Several minority advocacy groups, including some committed to fighting obesity, … […]

  2. It pisses me off to no end when large companies marshal the arguments of classism to their advantage.

    Taxes on soda will unduly burden the poor? Well, because they are the majority-consumers of the product, of course.

    Why are the healthier things more expensive? Well because you price them that way so that the health-minded consumer (read better-off) is willing to shell out extra to not-be-afflicted-with-diabetes. Y’all remember that part of Food Inc. where they couldn’t afford to buy fruit so they had to go to McDonald’s instead? That points to the systemic injustice that surrounds the food issue, one that Coke and Pepsi are exploiting here.

    Okay, lets get on the side of Coke for a second–I know it feels unnatural, but trust me it’ll work out in the end. What powers their argument against the tax? It that corn subsidies make it possible to produce high fructose corn syrup at below cost. This makes for super cheap inputs which lowers the cost of their beverage. So, naturally, food shouldn’t be this cheap. Coke would say that consumers ultimately benefit because they reap the rewards of cheap food. Which would be a fine argument if the cheap, government subsidized food wasn’t also poison. So, agribusiness subsidies are a problem. anti-free trade activists and those in the western hemisphere developing countries realize this.

    So you can’t tax the beverage on the backend to try to force poor consumers out of their addiction because frankly, they don’t have another alternative. It seems populist to make these moves but you have to confront the corn subsidies issue simultaneously.

    There is another way to get around it, and that would be by raising minimum wages and legalizing undocumented workers so that things like . . . vegetable juice and fruit juice are actually within the reach of the working poor. However, this is another patch solution that doesn’t really make it any easier to address the subsidies issue because the cost of inputs for the tomato-and-fruit plantations are premised mostly around the work of undocumented and the desperately poor.

    However, changing either of these issues is politically unsaavy, thus this type of solution is the only way to possible look out for the public welfare. Which is sad because by doing so, you give Coke the weapons to defeat it.


    Blase Kearney

    February 8, 2010 at 11:04 am

  3. […] Stew of Their Own Making… Paul Tullis writes at True/Slant about the so-called obesity industry’s victory over “democracy.&#82… It’s a hyperbolic, thinly reasoned piece but makes a good launching point to make a point […]

    • Ok Paul,

      I found your piece/argument to be rather tenuous for all of the following reasons:

      1.) “if corporations are people too…” an ancillary point but one nonetheless not actually established by the majority ruling in Citizens.

      I’m ignoring the not really germane aside about the energy industry and policy.

      2.)”and the tax was to be on drinks, not food” Except drinks are food. The rather inclusive definition of food or foodstuffs is material intended for human ingestion, including drinks.

      3.) Despite insinuations that the listed Latino groups were not acting in the best interests of their community you fail to cite anything that suggests otherwise. You point to the same statistics in the LA Times article but what would be good reasoning as opposed to the leap you offer, would be stats on obesity rates in Latino communities, soda consumption among Latinos. It’s one thing to point out how the industry gave money to the groups but how does the industry target Latino customers? These are all things that are completely lacking in your assertions and what I do get is “people who drink soda are 27% more likely to be overweight or obese.”

      Even that stat isn’t helpful. Of that 27% more likely, how much of that can be directly attributed to sodas as opposed to another factor that makes the same people likely to gain weight, also likely to drink sodas. Correlation may be causal, but that’s not proven. Without the causal link, the objection you didn’t cite raised in the Times’ article makes more sense.

      First, that sodas account for 5% of caloric intake and Dr. Rios’ comment, “the evidence is not clear that the tax would effectively reduce obesity.”

      Rather than address any of those or provide clear links to support what you’re saying, you cherry-pick quotes from the article and then insinuate perfidy.

      4.)The lobbying expenditures table falls victim to the same correlation/causality issue. The full context, would be best serve by a comparison of legislative issues affecting the industry in 2008 versus 2009, prior spending before 2008, comparative amounts at the state level, a sense of how many measures were the focus of lobbying efforts, and finally the relationship of Pepsi and Coke-Cola to the American Beverage Association, specifically with the increase in lobbying expenditures.

      5.) The false dichotomy between false science and real science is unsubstantiated by the article, which clearly demonstrates how lawmakers whose districts’ parochial interests might be threatened by the tax cooled to the idea. It would be more fair to say that the industry didn’t hoodwink people into thinking sodas weren’t unhealthy, it convinced some people that they would stand to lose, others that sodas didn’t deserve special treatment, and others that the solution was insufficiently matched to the problem.

      6.) Citizens United had zero effect on the industry lobbying efforts (or lobbying laws and restrictions whatsoever) and there is zero evidence that would support the assertion that such behaviour (that existed before the ruling) will become substantially worse after the ruling.

      It flies in the face of logic to suggest that a perfectly legal outcome that occurred under a particular law is emblematic of how terrible it is to do away with the particular law in the first place.

      7.) “Soda is bad for people’s health (see the UCLA study). Taxing stuff that is bad for people discourages people from consuming the bad stuff (see: cigarettes). Fewer bad things happen to people as a result (diabetes, heart disease). What could be a more obvious case of the public interest?”

      Soda is potentially bad for people’s health, how bad depends entirely on a host of other factors including broader dietary habits, genetic predisposition, exercise habits, and consumption levels.

      Hell, water is bad for your health if you over-consume it and nobody would suggest taxing that.

      There seems to be a serious question that a tax on one area of poor nutrition in dietary habits will solve or meaningfully address the potential health benefits you suggest they will. I challenge you to demonstrate how they will, not simply assert that less of a bad thing will mean people will be healthier and not simply pay the tax or switch to other beverages/foods. It’s also unclear whether cigarette taxes or public health campaigns discourage consumption more. Such information would shed light on how useful a soda tax might be but like so much is lacking in this piece.

      Finally, you suggest that the defeat of something so obviously (questionable) in the public interest is a defeat for democracy. Yet that’s a specious argument. The people who stand to lose their jobs as a result of fewer beverage industry profits might beg to differ as would the people who enjoy sweetened beverages and are aware of their health effects. As for democracy, it’s a process of self-government, it isn’t limited to or linked to some program to guarantee enactment of technocratic solutions meant to serve the public interest.

      I don’t have to agree or disagree on the subject of food policy and soda taxes to spot the myriad of ways in which your argument makes leaps and bounds without demonstrating clearly either a necessary context or a causal linkage. It’s sloppy and unconvincing and it’s not hurling insults to say so.


      February 8, 2010 at 3:43 pm

      • I think it is to do so without providing the reasoning behind saying so, which you have certainly done here!
        1) That’s actually exactly the notion that the majority relied upon to make its ruling. Without this underlying premise, they can’t make the expression to which the majority found they have a right. Corporations have been extended some rights normally reserved for humans so that they can sue and be sued, etc. The majority was extending these rights to the right of free speech. “Corporations are people” is a deliberate oversimplification for the sake of the argument, a rhetorical device I think most people are aware of and comfortable with. If you prefer “Corporations are the legal equivalent of people for purposes of political expression,” that’s fine by me.
        2) Nitpicky of both of us, but the point is that by calling it “Americans Against Food Taxes,” the industry makes it seem that, because non-prepared foods are not taxed, there’s some big new intrusion happening to which all reasonable people should be opposed. In fact it’s a raise of existing levies on a very specific category of prepared food. The choice of the name of this bogus front is an indication that they know they’re full of shit. If their cause is so just, why not call the group what it is: “Soda Industry Against Soda Taxes”? Because everyone would be like, yeah–fuck that.
        3) OK here: CDC data from 2007-8 published in JAMA shows Mexican-Americans have the second-highest rate of obesity of all racial groups. (African-American are 1, whites 3.) Copyright 2010 A.P.
        Again: “California’s Latinos are disproportionately affected by obesity and its complications.” — from “Obesity in Latino Communities: Prevention, Principles and Action,” by Gail Woodward-Lopez, MPH, RD, Associate Director, Center for Weightand Health, University of California Berkeley, and George R. Flores, MD, MPH, Board of Directors, LatinoCoalition for a Healthy California
        How does the industry target Latino customers? Where do you live, Kyle? I live in a county that is 1/2 Latino and there are Coke billboards fucking everywhere. Do you think that because I didn’t precisely describe the ways in which the industry targets Latinos means that it doesn’t happen? I didn’t give soda consumption rates among Latinos because I thought it was understood that if the soda industry is trying to put its representatives on the boards of groups ostensibly representing Latinos, it must be high or they wouldn’t bother. Give me a little credit, dude– blogs need to be short and TrueSlant, much as I love them, doesn’t pay me enough to cite every little thing that should be obvious in context. As to the 27%, thanks– I didn’t go to Yale but I do know the difference between correlation and causation. However if it’s good enough for medical researchers at UCLA it’s good enough for me. Dr Rios may be right, but given what happened with cigarettes, what’s the damage in trying? People who bother to put some thought into what they pour down their throats don’t have to pay for the quadruple-bypass surgery of people who don’t care about their health, and something nobody needs becomes more expensive? Why would anyone have a problem with that?
        4) Don’t be ridiculous. Anyone who follows the issue of money in politics, even casually, knows that lobbying expenditures go up when potentially damaging legislation to the interest doing the lobbying is under consideration. Again, I don’t have time or space to comb through every piece of data when context is everything. Look at what the financial and health care industries spent on lobbying in the weeks and months before legislation affecting them was being put forward, it’s the exact same thing for the exact same reason.
        5) What you say is true (although I’ll quibble with “more”), but that doesn’t mean that what I said isn’t true. The article quotes a researcher who says the industry misrepresented his findings, and it also says the industry financed studies that came out with results favorable to it.
        6) I’m aware that Citizens doesn’t involved lobbying per se. Look at the big picture: It’s the issue of money in politics. Citizens means more; this is an example of how more is damaging. Still waiting for what’s “thinly reasoned” in my post…
        7) OK, fine, here– CORRECTION: soda is POTENTIALLY bad for health. Also, tying a rope around your neck and jumping from a bridge is POTENTIALLY bad for health. Give me a break.
        8) Demonstrating as you require would mean years of data collection and analysis, an unreasonable standard. Plenty of public health advocates are behind the soda tax; do you claim to know better than they? And it is absolutely NOT unclear what effect cigarette taxes and public health campaigns have had on people’s health; in fact public health campaigns around smoking and seat belt use are the 2 greatest successes of preventive care in the 20th Century. Ask anyone in the field.
        9) I have no problem if the people who stand to lose their jobs (by the way, “I challenge you to demonstrate how they will, not simply assert” it), or drink soda til they puke, or anyone else wants to write letters to their representatives or march on the street or take any other democratic action in their interest. But there’s a difference between that and influencing matters by spending money when one side has almost all the money; that’s not a level playing field, it’s not fair, and it’s not democratic.
        I regret that you were unconvinced, but I quarrel with “sloppy.” I hope I’ve cleaned up my argument to your satisfaction here. Thanks for writing, PT

        Paul Tullis

        February 8, 2010 at 4:58 pm

  4. […] our communities continue down an unhealthy path toward obesity and diabetes. Imagine what kind of battles we will be facing now that we are in a post-Citizens United era where corporations like Coke, […]

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