When Soda Companies Pay the Public Health Bills
Several cities will vote on soda taxes this November, but the beverage industry is doing everything they can to make sure they don’t pass, including giving funding to national health organizations.
Coca-Cola and Pepsi have spent millions on fighting public health interventions that would reduce soda consumption while simultaneously giving millions to public health groups, according to a new article in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. The study found that between 2011 and 2015, the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo sponsored a total of 96 national health organizations, including the American Diabetes Association and the National Institutes of Health, as well as many medical and public health institutions whose mission it is to fight the obesity epidemic. Also during this time, they lobbied against 29 public health bills intended to reduce soda consumption or improve nutrition.
As a sector working within tight budgets, do donations from big soda companies help or hinder public health? The study reports several instances where organizations did an about-face on issues such as tax on sugary drinks after receiving funding. The organizations deny their stance has anything to do with soda’s financial support and Pepsi and Coca-Cola say they have long traditions of supporting community programs. The American Beverage Association (ABA) responded to the study stating that their support is the single-largest voluntary effort by any industry to address obesity and is not meant to sway health organizations’ study results. But others consider it a conflict of interest and are refusing to be bought. Colorado’s Boulder County Board of Public Health announced they will not take donations from the beverage industry. Although they have never taken money in the past, it is still noteworthy that they are taking a stand, especially because Boulder residents will vote on a soda tax in November.
Other cities are also taking action to curb soda consumption despite heavy pushback from the beverage industry. The ABA says it has defeated 45 soda tax measures nationwide since 2008. In New York they spent $12.9 million and in San Francisco, they spent $9.1 million to defeat such a tax. Philadelphia twice failed to pass a soda tax. One of those times, in 2010, the ABA offered $10 million to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia if the proposal was dropped. Ultimately the measure was voted down and they made the donation. However, the measure was finally passed this year when the new Philadelphia Mayor proposed the one-and-a-half cent per ounce tax as a way to fund universal preschool. This proved successful he says because they avoided the health angle and instead focused on poverty, a cause he thought more people were likely to get behind. His intuition was accurate, but it’s worth noting that universal preschool has many health (and educational) benefits so ultimately it was a win for public health too. The beverage industry has since filed a lawsuit in Philadelphia declaring the tax unlawful.
The soda companies have a strategy of donating millions to health organizations, while also working to defeat health-related measures. By maintaining financial ties to the public health industry, they are able to hide behind claims of philanthropy while manipulating the public health agenda in their favor. Public health organizations should avoid the murky waters of receiving financial aid from the beverage industry.