How Sugar Daddy Lobbyists Killed the War on Obesity
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April 27, 2012

In the political arena, one side is winning the war on child obesity. The side with the fattest wallets.

After aggressive lobbying, Congress declared pizza a vegetable to protect it from a nutritional overhaul of the school lunch program this year. The White House kept silent last year as Congress killed a plan by four federal agencies to reduce sugar, salt and fat in food marketed to children. And during the past two years, each of the 24 states and five cities that considered "soda taxes" to discourage consumption of sugary drinks has seen the efforts dropped or defeated.

At every level of government, the food and beverage industries won fight after fight in the last decade. They've never lost a significant political battle in the U.S. despite mounting scientific evidence of the role of unhealthy food and children's marketing in obesity. Lobbying records analyzed by Reuters reveal that the industries more than doubled their spending in Washington during the past three years. In the process, they largely dominated policymaking: pledging voluntary action while defeating government proposals aimed at changing the nation's diet, dozens of interviews show.

In contrast, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, widely regarded as the lead lobbying force for healthier food, spent about $70,000 lobbying last year, roughly what those opposing the stricter guidelines spent every 13 hours, the Reuters analysis showed. Industry critics also contend that the White House all but abandoned a multi-agency effort that recommended healthier food be marketed to children, even after First Lady Michelle Obama told a grocery trade group two years ago that food manufacturers needed to "step it up" to protect children.

"I'm upset with the White House," said Senator Tom Harkin (D-Iowa), chairman of the Senate Health Committee. "They went wobbly in the knees. When it comes to kids' health, they shouldn't go wobbly in the knees." The White House disputed the characterization.  Sam Kass, an assistant chef there and senior policy adviser on food initiatives, said in a statement: "We are incredibly proud of the commitments that many food companies have made, and are continuing to work with others to advocate for even more change to make sure our children are getting the healthy, nutritious food they need."

The political battles over what children eat and drink are crucial to the nation's health, experts say, because the tripling in childhood obesity in the last three decades foretells diabetes, heart disease and other illness in decades to come.

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America is one of the fattest nations on earth, and the Institute of Medicine, in a 2006 report requested by Congress, said junk food marketing contributes to an epidemic of childhood obesity that continues to rise. The institute is the health arm of the National Academy of Sciences.

Health experts and Harkin say the food industry has employed some of the same tactics as Big Tobacco in its efforts to fight stricter regulations – chiefly the argument that the industry should regulate itself. Though no major legislative action on childhood obesity is pending during this election year, the public debate is expected to resume next month. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) will hold a conference in Washington May 7-9 called "Weight of the Nation." It will include an Institute of Medicine update and the premiere of an HBO documentary series of the same name. Health advocates also plan a "Sugary Drinks Summit" in Washington from June 7-8.