Bribes: How Food Corporations Keep Opponents Quiet

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Does corporate social responsibility pay off for corporations? Indeed it does. Corporate money buys silence, if nothing else.

William Neuman of The New York Times provides a perfect example of how corporate sponsorship gets precisely what it is intended to do.

In this particular case:

    • The corporations are soda companies, Coke and Pepsi.
    • The social responsibility is donations of millions of dollars to a good cause.
    • The cause is Save the Children, a group devoted to child health and development projects internationally and domestically.
    • The intention? Get Save the Children to stop advocating in favor of soda taxes.

Not long ago, Save the Children was a strong advocate for soda taxes. Now it is not. How come? The group's website explains:

about a minute ago we said, Corporate donors support us but do not pressure us. Our focus is children not soda tax policy. Back to saving more children now.

The Times, however, suggests a different explanation:

executives at Save the Children were seeking a major grant from Coca-Cola to help finance the health and education programs that the charity conducts here and abroad, including its work on childhood obesity. The talks with Coke are still going on. But the soda tax work has been stopped ... In interviews this month, Carolyn Miles, chief operating officer of Save the Children, said there was no connection between the group's about-face on soda taxes and the discussions with Coke. A $5 million grant from PepsiCo also had no influence on the decision, she said. Both companies fiercely oppose soda taxes.

A mere coincidence? I don't think so. This is a clear win for soda companies, just as was Coca-Cola's sponsorship of the educational activities of the American Academy of Family Physicians. You can bet those activities do not involve telling parents not to give sodas to their kids.

Is this a win for Save the Children? The Times reports that the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funds some of the group's anti-obesity initiatives, is disappointed. Evidently, its $3.5 million donation wasn't enough to convince the group to continue its anti-soda activities.

In the meantime, soda taxes continue to stay on the radar as a weight control strategy. A new study in the Archives of Internal Medicine suggests that soda taxes could lead to a small but potentially significant weight loss.

According to FoodNavigator's report about the study, the authors say that applying such taxes throughout the United States could generate a billion dollars or more. It quotes lead researcher Eric Finkelstein: "Although small, given the rising trend in obesity rates, especially among youth, any strategy that shows even modest weight loss should be considered."

This kind of study is a challenge to soda companies. Watch Coke and Pepsi continue donations to charitable and health groups and watch those groups say not one word about the contribution of sodas to obesity. Cigarettes, anyone?


This post also appears on foodpolitics.com.

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Marion Nestle is a professor in the Department of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University. She is the author of Food Politics, Safe Food, What to Eat, and Pet Food Politics. More

Nestle also holds appointments as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell. She is the author of three prize-winning books: Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health (revised edition, 2007), Safe Food: The Politics of Food Safety (2003), and What to Eat (2006). Her most recent book is Feed Your Pet Right: The Authoritative Guide to Feeding Your Dog and Cat. She writes the Food Matters column for The San Francisco Chronicle and blogs almost daily at Food Politics.

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