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Soda Industry Tries To Woo Public Health Groups With Sponsorship Deals


One of the ballot initiatives that voters in San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., will see would place a tax on sodas and other sugary drinks. The measures are aimed at fighting obesity. Just last week, the World Health Organization urged governments around the world to pass similar measures - no surprise soda companies are fighting back. NPR's Allison Aubrey reports.

ALLISON AUBREY, BYLINE: If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you may have heard or seen ads like this one.


QUEENKAY AMAMGBO: My name is Queenkay Amamgbo. I'm the owner of the African-Caribbean Food Market.

AUBREY: Queenkay and other small business owners have joined with the beverage industry to defeat what they're calling a grocery tax.


AMAMGBO: The grocery tax is going to hurt my customers. There's a limit to how much they can spend.

AUBREY: As Queenkay speaks, the camera pans across fresh vegetables and dried beans. As you watch it, it's easy to assume that these foods are going to be taxed if the ballot measures pass. But that's not the case. Michael Siegel says the industry's campaign is deceptive. He's a physician and public health expert at Boston University.

MICHAEL SIEGEL: So this is just a mirage by the soda industry to try to hide the fact that this is a targeted tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

AUBREY: Not so, says the American Beverage Association. They're funding the ad campaign. Joe Ariano (ph) is the spokesman.

JOE ARIANO: No, you know, our ads are essentially telling the voters what is actually on the ballot.

AUBREY: The industry argues that a tax on sugary drinks could lead some retailers to raise the price of other grocery items so they can keep drink prices lower.

ARIANO: Grocery prices could go up. We just think that's not good public policy.

AUBREY: Ariano says his campaign has reserved $9 and a half million in airtime leading up to Election Day. Bill Dietz, who's been on the frontlines of fighting obesity first at the CDC and now at George Washington University, says the industry is facing an uphill battle to fend off soda taxes.

BILL DIETZ: The fact that the American Beverage Association is labeling the sugar drink tax in Oakland the grocery tax shows their desperation.

AUBREY: The science linking sugary drinks to obesity is clear, and there's already some evidence from Mexico that taxing sugary drinks reduces consumption.

DIETZ: One could argue that the tobacco industry playbook has been adopted in its entirety by the sugar drink industry.

AUBREY: Dietz says the industry has funded studies to undermine the science, and a new paper published last week in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine documents another approach. Coke and Pepsi have initiated millions of dollars in sponsorship deals with public health groups such as the American Heart Association and the American Diabetes Association. Michael Siegel of Boston University is the author of the paper.

M. SIEGEL: What really surprised us was the fact that so many health organizations were willing to take the money.

AUBREY: Ninety-six organizations have taken sponsorship from Coke and Pepsi over the last five years.

M. SIEGEL: By accepting this money, they are essentially working to promote soda consumption because corporate sponsorship is a well-recognized marketing activity of the soda companies.

AUBREY: Now, the industry takes issue here. Soda companies say they're working with public health groups and foundations to be part of the solution to the obesity epidemic. They point out that they're committed to marketing smaller serving sizes and more lower-calorie beverages.

And groups such as the American Heart Association say these sponsorship deals with Coke and Pepsi do not create a conflict of interest. The AHA's Greg Donaldson says his group is advocating for taxes on sugary drinks, and the money they've gotten from soda companies amounts to less than one-tenth of 1 percent of their revenues.

GREG DONALDSON: That support is pretty fractional and certainly isn't in our view in any way in a position to influence our policy.

AUBREY: The beverage industry has also tried to lay the groundwork for what might come in a future administration. Records show that Coke has given $5 to $10 million to the Clinton Foundation, and emails released from WikiLeaks' hack of Clinton campaign staff suggests that Coke was hoping for something in return.

Last spring after Hillary Clinton said publicly that she supported a soda tax in Philadelphia, a Coke executive fired off an email to a Clinton aide that read, quote, "really, after all we've done for you?" A further strand of emails shows Coke trying to get the campaign to back off.

M. SIEGEL: Well, it seems pretty clear, you know? The emails speak for themselves.

AUBREY: Boston University's Michael Siegel says this is another example of how soda companies can use philanthropy as a strategy to fight policies they don't like.

M. SIEGEL: This is about as explicit as a company can get in basically saying, yes, this is - you know, these donations were intended to try to influence policy.

AUBREY: In a statement to NPR, Coca-Cola told us that they were disappointed to learn that Secretary Clinton supported the beverage tax, so they shared their point of view with her campaign. Allison Aubrey, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.