New York Times
POSTED: 1:30 a.m. HST, Dec 15, 2010
Over the last year, Save the Children emerged as a leader in the push to tax sweetened soft drinks as a way to combat childhood obesity. The nonprofit group supported soda tax campaigns in Mississippi, New Mexico, Washington State, Philadelphia and the District of Columbia.
At the same time, 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 October, Save the Children surprised activists around the country with an e-mail announcing that it would no longer support efforts to tax soft drinks.
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.
Miles said that after Save the Children took a prominent role in several soda tax campaigns, executives reviewed the issue and decided it was too controversial to continue.
"We looked at it and said, 'Is this something we should be out there doing and does this fit with the way that Save the Children works?"' she said. "And the answer was no."
Miles said the talks with Coke were continuing and the grant under discussion was significantly larger than past donations from the soft drink giant. Coke has given the group about $400,000 since 1991, according to a company spokeswoman.
Save the Children has received much more money from Pepsi through the PepsiCo Foundation, which it has designated as a "corporate partner" in recognition of the $5 million grant for work in India and Bangladesh. PepsiCo awarded the grant in early 2009, before the charity began its soda tax advocacy.
Representatives of both Coca-Cola and Pepsi said they had not asked the charity to alter its position on soda taxes.
But soda tax advocates say that soft drink makers are flexing their muscles in opposition to soda taxes. In Washington State, the American Beverage Association, a trade group that includes Coke and Pepsi, spent $16.5 million to win passage of a November ballot initiative that overturned a small tax on soft drinks enacted by the legislature to help plug a budget gap. The beverage association outspent supporters of the tax by more than 40 to 1, and the tax was repealed.
Jon Gould, deputy director of the Children's Alliance, an advocacy group in Seattle, said Save the Children's decision to abandon the issue was "a significant loss, especially at a time when the American Beverage Association has just shown that their resources are unlimited." The alliance got $25,000 from Save the Children to help advocate for a soda tax.
Kelly D. Brownell, a soda tax advocate and director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University, said that many food and beverage companies made donations to nonprofit groups fighting hunger or obesity.
"But if there's any quid pro quo there -- as a condition of supporting these groups, they had to stop doing the soda tax thing -- that would be very unfortunate," Brownell said.
Public debate about soda taxes has intensified over the last year. Proponents say that if the tax were large enough, perhaps a penny an ounce or more, it could reduce consumption of sugary beverages, which are high in calories and can contribute to obesity. In addition, money raised by the tax could be spent on public health efforts to fight obesity.
The soda companies argue that it is unfair to blame their products for the obesity epidemic, which has complex causes. They say that policies should be focused instead on getting people to exercise more.
So far, tax proposals have gotten little traction. Last year, federal lawmakers considered a soft drink tax to help pay for health care reform, but that idea was dropped. Governors, state lawmakers and mayors have proposed taxes but made little headway.
Save the Children's involvement in the issue began in late 2009, when it got a $3.5 million grant from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to fight childhood obesity through a program it called the Campaign for Healthy Kids. Save the Children initially financed the work of local groups, some of which focused on improving school lunches and requiring health education in schools. But local activists in Mississippi, New Mexico and Washington State used the grants to push for a soda tax.
When politicians in Philadelphia and Washington proposed soda taxes this year, the Campaign for Healthy Kids got more directly involved, paying for lobbyists and polling.
"We really took the lead on those and were publicly identified with those," said Andrew Hysell, an associate vice president for Save the Children and the director of the obesity campaign.
None of the soda tax measures supported by Save the Children passed, although in Washington, the city council removed a sales tax exemption for carbonated beverages.
Save the Children's prominent role in Philadelphia and Washington led top executives of the charity to review the work. Miles said they concluded the advocacy was not part of the charity's mission.
"We made a decision that it was an issue that was controversial among our constituents and really was not core to the work we're doing in the U.S.," Miles said. She said that while the charity's constituents included corporate donors, concerns over fundraising were not involved in the decision.
Hysell informed soda tax advocates of the change in October and the Campaign for Healthy Kids removed declarations of support for soda taxes from its website.
Officials of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, who had encouraged Save the Children to advocate for soda taxes, are disappointed.
"They were obviously some of the strongest out there working on the issue, and we had such high hopes," said Dwayne Proctor, team director for childhood obesity at the foundation. He said the two groups would continue to work together on other aspects of the obesity fight.