Exclusive: Soda makers escalate attacks over obesity

LOS ANGELES/SAN FRANCISCO Wed Jul 20, 2011 5:07am BST

A Coca-Cola bottle is seen with other beverages in New York in this June 23, 2008 file photo. U.S. beverage companies are stepping up their efforts against anti-obesity campaigns, targeting local governments across the country with voluminous document requests and suing New York City's public health department. Picture taken June 23, 2008. REUTERS/Shannon Stapleton/Files

A Coca-Cola bottle is seen with other beverages in New York in this June 23, 2008 file photo. U.S. beverage companies are stepping up their efforts against anti-obesity campaigns, targeting local governments across the country with voluminous document requests and suing New York City's public health department. Picture taken June 23, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Shannon Stapleton/Files

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LOS ANGELES/SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - U.S. public awareness campaigns about sugary soft drinks are under legal attack by beverage makers, which have sued New York City's health department and hit local governments with requests for documents on the science behind the initiatives.

Efforts to deter consumption of sugar-sweetened soft drinks and fatty foods have gained favor in the United States as skyrocketing obesity rates drive up healthcare costs.

The soda industry, which says it is defending its products from "baseless" attacks, and its attorneys have filed at least six document requests with public agencies from California to New York. Anti-obesity advocates say the requests -- which can take hundreds of staff hours for cash-strapped governments to satisfy -- come from the tobacco industry's playbook.

"It is, in our opinion, an effort to overwhelm or smother government employees, who already have too much to do," said Ian McLaughlin, an attorney at the National Policy & Legal Analysis Network to Prevent Childhood Obesity in Oakland, California.

Earlier this month, the American Beverage Association sued New York City's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which has been at the forefront of education efforts in the fight against obesity. The ABA says the city improperly withheld documents it sought through the Freedom of Information Act.

ABA spokesman Chris Gindlesperger said his group made the same request as the New York Times, but that the newspaper received more information than the ABA.

"Public health departments are going out and aggressively misrepresenting our products in advertising and using taxpayer money to do that," Gindlesperger said.

A New York health department representative did not respond to a request for comment about the lawsuit, which is pending in state court.

Northern California's Santa Clara County received a letter in May from law firm Latham & Watkins asking for all records relating to its "Rethink Your Drink" education campaign. The law firm, which represents the ABA, sent similar requests to Chicago and Seattle county governments for all writings connected to their sugary-beverage education efforts.

Daniel Peddycord, Santa Clara County's public health director, stood by his agency's efforts.

"This is one of the things where the science is really clear ... Americans are consuming far, far, far too much sugar," Peddycord said.

Roughly two-thirds of adults and one-third of children in the United States are overweight or obese, and rates continue to rise. Obesity contributes to diabetes and other costly chronic diseases.

Each day, the average American adult consumes roughly 22 teaspoons (90 grams), or 355 calories, of added sugars, well above health guidelines. Caloric sweeteners in beverages are a key source of excess calories. New U.S. dietary guidelines recommend drinking water instead sugary drinks.

PepsiCo and Coca-Cola Co declined comment for this story, referring reporters to the ABA.

FEELING SINGLED OUT, FIGHTING BACK

Food and beverage companies say they are being unfairly singled out.

At various times, states and localities have considered taxing sugary beverages to cover obesity-related health costs. In 2009 and 2010, as such proposals became more frequent, the ABA, Coke and Pepsi collectively spent $60 million on lobbying, up from $8 million in 2007 and 2008, according to data collected by the Center for Responsive Politics' OpenSecrets.org.

In going after public health campaigns, veterans of the tobacco wars say, the ABA has dusted off an old road map. In the 1990s, tobacco companies embarked on a Freedom of Information effort targeting government agencies receiving federal anti-tobacco money, according to a study by the National Cancer Institute, part of the National Institutes of Health.

Some within the tobacco industry viewed the effort as a way to chill anti-smoking campaigns, the study found.

"The purpose is to stop the staff from doing what they're actually hired to do," said Russ Sciandra, advocacy director for the American Cancer Society in New York state.

Matias Valenzuela, public education coordinator for the King County Public Health Department in Seattle, estimated that responding to the ABA's requests about its sugary beverage education campaign would take 750 hours over nine months.

Gindlesperger said the municipalities are large enough to handle the requests, which are meant to uncover what the ABA claims is shoddy science used in anti-obesity campaigns. Based on its Freedom of Information request, the New York Times reported in October on an internal dispute within the New York City health department over what claims it could make based on the science regarding sugar intake and weight gain.

The ABA has also requested documents from Philadelphia and the Centers for Disease Control, he said.

In their own bid to stay ahead of anti-obesity efforts, fast-food companies have asked state legislators to limit local government power to regulate restaurants. Arizona, Florida, Alabama and Ohio recently passed so-called preemption laws, another device once used by tobacco companies.

Obesity-related diseases account for nearly 10 percent of U.S. medical spending, or an estimated $147 billion a year. That does not include the cost of lost worker productivity, which is estimated at more than $73 billion a year.

For beverage manufacturers, the issue of obesity is "kind of Armageddon," said Tom Pirko, an industry consultant.

"What's happening now is that we're seeing a much more active industry that's looking at fighting back now as opposed to just simply trying to make nice."

(Additional reporting by Martinne Geller in New York; Editing by Martha Graybow and Steve Orlofsky)

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