Curbing the Soda Industry’s Influence, One County at a Time
Since The New York Times reported on Coca-Cola giving money to and maintaining a cozy relationship with the Global Energy Balance Network, a nonprofit that promoted exercise over diet to combat obesity, the financial relationship between soda companies and public health groups has been scrutinized. Coke attempted to combat the bad press by disclosing its financial relationships with researchers and nutrition professionals, and GEBN was dissolved. But even as that scandal has apparently drawn to a close, Colorado’s Boulder County Board of Health is taking another step—which it says is unprecedented—to draw a line between the beverage industry and public health institutions. On Tuesday, the board announced that it would not accept cash donations or other in-kind services from soda companies.
“As a public health agency, we are charged with protecting and promoting the public’s health,” Jeff Zayach, Boulder County Public Health’s executive director, said in a press release. “When our residents are struggling with heart disease, unhealthy weight, and diabetes and these diseases are linked to consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, we are obligated to take a stand.”
The thing is, the Boulder County Board of Health has never taken cash or in-kind donations from any beverage company. While it may be the first such department to freeze out soda companies, it’s a symbolic gesture—but it may not be an empty one.
“Health agencies from across the country have been accepting money from the soda industry for years. It hurts the integrity of an agency and needs to stop. Boulder County is the first to do this,” Jake Williams, executive director of Healthier Colorado, told the Longmont Times Call.
While it isn’t exactly a county board of health—it’s far bigger and far more influential—the World Health Organization got into trouble in 2012 when it was revealed that one of its regional offices was taking money from food companies.
The WHO outpost in question was the Pan American Health Organization, which is tasked with fighting disease in Mexico—the country with the world’s highest per-capita soda consumption—and other Central American countries. Coca-Cola gave the office $50,000 that year, and while Mexico went on to pass the first national soda tax the following year, the incident is yet another example of how the industry uses financial influence to try to create a public health environment that’s friendly to its products.
More recently, local government bodies similar to the Boulder County Board of Health have been in the news for efforts aimed at limiting soda consumption. In San Francisco, for example, a warning label will soon appear on sugar-sweetened beverages, and the city has banned using public funds to purchase soda and other high-calorie drinks.