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.
Follow me on Twitter.