Coca Cola and politicians : keeping America fat

Brenda Fitzgerald has been appointed by Health and Human Services Secretary Tom Price to be the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Brenda is a medical doctor, board-certified obstetrician-gynecologist and a Fellow in Anti-Aging Medicine. Previously she directed various public health programs in her native state of Georgia including being the head of Georgia’s 18 public health districts and 159 county health departments. She also chaired the board for the Georgia Public Policy Foundation. Brenda has been quoted as saying that unless the obesity epidemic facing children is not addressed right now, they will likely suffer life-long consequences of obesity — diabetes, hypertension and heart disease Sound like an excellent choice so far by the Trump Administration!  Not really, one might think as Georgia is one of the most obese places in the world and the problem is getting worse. So therefore it should not come as any surprise to anyone that the person in charge of health and stopping people getting fat is in the pay of Coca Cola.  This is a bit like getting Adolf Hitler to run an anti racist campaign.

Alongside Georgia governor Nathan Deal, Brenda launched SHAPE, an effort to address childhood obesity through getting children to exercise before and during lessons – thirty minutes of light physical exercise per day.  When launched, Muhtar Kent, the chief executive and chairperson of the Coca-Cola Company stood next to Nathan, Atlanta Mayor Kasim Reed and Brenda announcing that his company would give USD1m to support the campaign.  That might have been OK had it not been for the fact that the head of Coca Cola’s lobbying efforts to avoid sugar taxes being placed on its products, Clyde Tuggle, had not been appointed to the board of SHAPE.

In announcing SHAPE, Muhtar Kent said the contribution is part of Coca-Cola's global effort to fight obesity. In addition to supporting physical activity programs around the world, the company will also continue to offer low and no-calorie beverages, feature calorie counts on the front of all their products and ban any marketing to children under age twelve. 

Other funding by Coca Cola in Georgia has included USD1 million to Walk Georgia, a physical activity promotion program created by the University of Georgia's Cooperative Extension, USD1 million to Atlanta's Centers of Hope which is Nathan Reed's initiative to provide after-school programs and development for Atlanta youth and USD800,000 will go to other physical activity programs, including the Atlanta Beltline and the PATH Foundation.

Georgia had one of the highest rates of childhood obesity in the US although when SHAPE was announced it had fallen to 17th position – still in the top one third but not as bad as before.  I have a theory – maybe others would like to comment on this – but the hottest States seem to be those that have the worst obesity.  Is this because of poverty or is it because of the amount of liquid sugar people drink to ‘hydrate’ themselves in the heat?  If people think drinking sugar is a form of hydration, perhaps they need to be better informed.

Of course exercise is a good thing for your body but as British doctor Aseem Mahotra has said ‘You cannot outrun a bad diet’.  Brenda also appears to agree with this saying that children need to eat more fruit and vegetables – forget five a day in Georgia – if kids are on two a day that is quite something.  Brenda says that only 17% of Georgian schoolchildren get their five a day.  I believe that Georgia has the highest rate of exemptions to federal rules stopping junk food being sold in public schools.

SHAPE’s board member Clive Tuggle was at the forefront of the fight by companies like Coca-Cola to avoid sugar taxes being placed on its products.  According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the liquid sugar industry spent at least USD67m fighting sugar taxes in the five year period after 2009.  Furthermore at least USD130m has been spent lobbying at the federal level, a significant amount of which was directed against public health measures, including an updated Nutrition Facts Label and Dietary Guideline for Americans. Having been successful on this front, the industry now spends around USD15m on lobbying each year.

Tactics used by the liquid sugar industry include calling taxes a grocery tax in social media and TV advertising and calling such taxes racist because they effect poor black and Hispanic people more.

However it is not just the Republicans which have been up to no good.  Ironically, it is due to hacking from Trump’s friends and backers in the Kremlin that we know about how Coca-Cola put pressure on Hillary Clinton not to support a soda tax. In the period between 2004 and 2010, Coca Cola donated USD4.3m to the Clinton Foundation, donations of which increased after a 2009 visit to the Clinton home by Coca Cola CEO Muhtar Kent.  Bill Clinton made the most of the visit to request a USD5m donation for his foundation and the Coca Cola boss was happy to oblige.  Other funds may well have been given since.  Coca-Cola spokesperson Kent Landers said Coca-Cola donates money to the Clinton Foundation and its related organisation, the Clinton Global Initiative, because the company wants to support its charitable work.  Nonetheless Hillary was initially supportive of a soda tax however her campaign team sent a mail to Coca Cola to assure them that it was no longer priority policy.  Possibly more on this subject some time in the future.  Nonetheless I suspect now that Hillary is not going to become president that Coca Cola may not bother with further cash for the Clinton Foundation.

Coca Cola was involved in setting up the Global Energy Balance Network, which aims to suggest that one can indeed outrun a bad diet. Another organisation, the International Life Sciences Institute, which incidentally was founded by funds from Coca-Cola is campaigning for this company to be allowed to put forward its view on outrunning the bad diet in public debates and one set of e-mails revealed how Coca Cola wanted to fight the World Health Organisation’s call for greater regulation of fizzy drinks calling the WHO a threat to their business.  One person copied in on the mails was SHAPE’s board member Clyde Tuggle.

For the moment the liquid sugar industry may be safe in the knowledge that they have their lady looking after the health of American children fighting obesity and obesity related illnesses.  Parents can also rest in the knowledge that they have someone fighting their corner against additional ‘grocery taxes’.  And of course the Trump administration won’t have to worry either because by the time all the diseases associated with childhood obesity kick in, they will be long gone and won’t have to foot the medical bill.