10 August 2003
is elusive in soda battle
CONSUMERS -- or legislators -- trying to figure out who stands for
what when making up their minds on controversial issues like whether
sugar- filled sodas should be sold in our schools.
month at a hearing in Sacramento, Lisa Mosing, a dietitian from
Fullerton, testified against SB677, a bill by Sen. Deborah Ortiz
restricting on-campus soda sales. Mosing's central message: lack
of exercise, not sodas, causes obesity.
Mosing is hardly a disinterested dietitian. She runs her own consulting
firm (see www.mosingnutrition.com), and regularly consults for the
soda and food industry. In fact, she was paid by the California
Nevada Soft Drink Association to testify at the hearing, something
she neglected to disclose in her public testimony.
did reveal she is on the advisory board of the American Council
on Fitness and Nutrition. It is one of a slew of tax-exempt organizations
in Washington, D.C., with wholesome names -- the Center for Consumer
Freedom and the American Council on Science and Health are others
-- that are actually funded wholly or in part by corporate interests
to defeat threatening legislation or discredit potentially damaging
have no problem with any corporation making its best case for its
products, in whatever forum. But it pollutes the arena of discourse
when charitable organizations they create or support obscure their
sources of funding while posing as objective sources of information.
June, for example, the Center for Consumer Freedom (see www. consumerfreedom.com)
sent out a press release attacking Ortiz' bill, alleging it was
based on "fizzy science." It contended that "no causal
link between soda and obesity has ever been produced." In an
op-ed piece in our newspaper, the group trashed a seminal 2001 Harvard
study co-authored by Dr. David Ludwig, director
of the obesity program at Children's Hospital Boston, as "dubious
science." The study found that every additional can of soda
kids drink daily increases their risk of becoming obese by 60 percent.
group also attacked a study by Harvard professor Grace Wyshak showing
that physically active girls who drink sodas regularly are more
likely to suffer from bone fractures. "Wyshak never came close
to proving that soda pop had anything to do with broken bones,"
wrote David Martosko, the center's "research director."
He criticized Ortiz for "using this hollow 'study' " in
the text of her bill.
like Mosing the dietitian, the Center for Consumer Freedom is hardly
an unbiased source. Originally known as the Guest Choice Network,
and begun with funds from the tobacco giant Philip Morris, the organization
is the brainchild of Washington lobbyist Richard Berman, who is
also the group's executive director. Berman also founded the American
Beverage Institute, which fights drunk-driving laws, and the Employment
Policy Institute, which works against minimum-wage legislation opposed
by the restaurant industry.
runs all three organizations out of his offices in downtown Washington,
which we visited last month. Some of the same staff members work
for all three organizations. Not only does Berman draw a salary
from at least one of the organizations, all three, in turn, pay
huge fees to his lobbying firm for a range of services.
called Boston researcher Ludwig, who told us that Berman and his
staff never contacted him to clarify his research before widely
attacking it. The group, he said, engages in "highly selective
quoting," and "missed the main point" of his research.
And he dismissed their critique of his peer-reviewed study, published
in the highly respected journal Lancet. "These are commonly
used research techniques, whose methodology has been validated,
and can provide important and useful information if used accurately,"
anything, he said, his work may underestimate the impact of drinking
sodas on obesity.
was equally dismissive of the center's criticisms of her work. "I
showed there was a relationship between soda consumption, especially
cola drinks, and bone fractures in physically active teenage girls,"
she said. "It is consistent with what is known, consistent
with what we call biologically plausibility."
for Consumer Freedom staffers also maintain that a resolution to
ban soda sales by the Los Angeles Unified School District beginning
next January was instigated by a bunch of left-wingers at the Center
for Food and Justice at Occidental College in Los Angeles. For instance,
Martosko told us, its director Bob Gottlieb was a member of the
activist Student for a Democratic Society in the 1960s.
a professor of urban and environmental policy, dismissed the allegations
as erroneous or irrelevant. "It's guilt by association, without
looking at the substance of the issues," he said. Rather than
the work of a left-wing cadre, the L.A. schools soda ban was the
outcome of lobbying by a coalition of organizations, some of whose
work was even praised by the Bush administration. As to his own
background, he said, "I was a student activist, and I'm proud
hearing from Mosing and others, the Assembly Health Committee watered
down Ortiz's bill to exclude high schools, where most soda sales
occur. The full Assembly will vote on it later this month. The bill's
uncertain fate can't be tied directly to the input from industry-sponsored
groups or their representatives. But they play a key role in obfuscating
the issues, and confusing the debate by consistently challenging
are part of the necessary arsenal that corporations use to squash
any regulation or reform," said Andrew McGuire, director of
the Trauma Foundation in San Francisco, an advocate for tougher
drunk-driving laws. "Ultimately, what they do is confuse consumers,
who eventually say, 'forget about the whole thing.' "
hope the Legislature won't be as easily dissuaded. Organizations
with warm and fuzzy words in their titles can't hide the underlying
truth: research -- and common sense -- make clear that excessive
soda consumption contributes to children becoming overweight. And
schools have no business exacerbating the problem by selling sodas
to captive, and gullible, consumers.
is one in a series of editorials on the commercialization of childhood.
See the others at www.sfgate.com/childhood