Over the past few months, we’ve shared details of a derailed San Antonio City Council campaign aimed at encouraging residents to decrease their intake of sugar-sweetened beverages.
The main controversy revolved around a Coca-Cola director of public affairs and communications who was added to the working group and, predictably, had all sorts of objections to the campaign.
This past weekend, the San Antonio Express-News Editorial Board shed further light on the complex and dramatic turn of events.
- “It is a complex tale that started more than a year ago when [San Antonio’s] public health director became aware of data that showed a clear link between decreased sugar consumption — mostly in beverages — and decreased obesity. It evolved into an idea for a campaign to educate San Antonians about sugar in beverages. The Metropolitan Health District, the city’s public health entity, created a working group, with other community public health partners included, to come up with this campaign. But a few months into the working group’s efforts, a representative from the beverage industry — Luisa Casso, director of public affairs and communications with the Coca-Cola Co. North America Group — was added to the working group.”
- “Emails, obtained through a public records request, show that Casso called Metro Health on April 22, 2014, asking to be a part of this effort. This was a day after an editorial appeared in this newspaper supporting Metro Health Director Thomas Schlenker’s desire to craft a campaign focusing on sugar-sweetened beverages.”
- “Commenting on a goal of getting consumers to “pass” on sugar-sweetened drinks and choose water instead, Casso wrote, “Overall, the industry promotes moderation and the concept of ‘passing’ suggests that the products not be consumed at all.”
- “Rudy Ruiz, who heads Interlex Communications, a firm that was helping craft the message pro bono, sits on the board of directors of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. [He] wrote an email to Michael Jacobson, executive director of the nonprofit watchdog consumer group, [in which] Ruiz wrote: “The assistant city manager says, if the industry is not comfortable with the messages then we can’t use them. So Coke is practically telling the health department what it can and can’t say and do!”
- “Another member, who requested anonymity, couldn’t recall when it was said but that “it became clear that whatever message came out of our group had to be approved by the beverage and Coca-Cola representative.”
- “In June 2013, then-Mayor Castro announced $1.5 million in grants from the Coca-Cola Foundation to San Antonio Sports and the San Antonio Food Bank to finance the Mobilizing Health and Fitness Resources to Neighborhoods Project.”
- “The city’s failure to launch its own campaign was, in our view, an unacceptable abdication of duty. A soda representative simply shouldn’t have been on the working group. And if soda didn’t have a veto, it’s unclear then how its objections could tank the city campaign.”
This is a textbook example of “sitting at the table with industry” yielding disastrous results for public health. As is usual for those kinds of arrangements, industry comes out smelling like roses while the public health sector is rendered powerless.