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Feb. 8 2010 - 8:15 am | 553 views | 0 recommendations | 6 comments

Obesity industry: 1 Democracy: 0

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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  1. collapse expand

    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.


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    About Me

    I've been writing and editing for national magazines for 11 years, the last few specializing in environmental journalism, with additional experience producing daily news for, and appearing as a commentator on, public radio, and editing and managing a website.

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    Contributor Since: April 2009