THE BLOG

What Big Soda Learned From the Marlboro Man

03/20/2013 05:52 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2013

If you want to understand the soda industry today, take a look back to the tobacco industry in the 1990s. Under siege 20 years ago, Philip Morris' corporate affairs division issued an internal "Five-Year Plan," which surveyed a landscape of "unabated activism," more regulation, and "deteriorating" attitudes about smoking, as well as issues related to trade and solid waste generation (litter, presumably).

The document, with its coldly Soviet-sounding title, seemed most alarmed about new taxes. "We are also vulnerable to taxes designed as much to modify behavior as they are meant to raise taxes," the Five-Year Plan worriedly stated.

In somewhat coded language, the plan called for funding minority organizations to undermine anti-smoking campaigners. The company should "develop offsetting relationships among groups that are often used by the 'antis' suggesting they are victims because they use the company's products" -- antis being anti-smoking activists -- "thus undermining the opposition's ability to organize against the company's interests with leading community organizations."

By this time, Philip Morris was already an expert at playing the divide-and-conquer game. In the 1980s, New York City -- then, as now, ahead of its time -- proposed requiring separate non-smoking sections in restaurants. The Tobacco Institute created the Committee for Common Courtesy to safeguard the rights of smokers, enlisting as an ally the state conference of the NAACP and its local president, Hazel Dukes.

Fast-forward 20 years.

Another New York mayor proposes a pioneering public health measure, one that would cap the serving sizes of obesity- and diabetes-causing sugar drinks at 16 ounces in restaurants and other venues regulated by the city's health department. And again, Hazel Dukes of the NAACP is opposing the proposal, casting the cap as a civil rights issue: "I strongly object to the imposition on personal freedom suggested by this ban," she blogged on The Huffington Post.

What she did not acknowledge at that time was that over the years Coca-Cola has been generous to the NAACP, both the national and the state chapter. In fact, Coca-Cola brags about giving the group at least $2.1 million since 1986. That fact would come out, however, when the NAACP and another group, the Hispanic Federation, filed -- with the help of long-time Coca-Cola law firm King & Spalding -- court papers supporting the soda industry's lawsuit against the city.

"We need to stop just looking at one thing, which is the sugary drinks," Dukes told TheGrio.com after New York State Supreme Court Judge Milton A. Tingling handed down an injunction preventing the city's soda proposal from taking effect.

Indeed, let's turn away from the sugary drinks -- there's nothing to see here!

And similar to the way the tobacco industry spent heavily trying to cast doubt on the science connecting smoking and second-hand smoke to lung cancer, the soda industry has spent lavishly on groups representing doctors, dentists, dietitians, and nurses. In one case, a $600,000 grant from Coca-Cola to the American Academy of Family Physicians paid for a website with mild advice to consumers to choose water over sugary drinks, but with soft language that echoes industry talking points stressing soda's role in promoting "hydration."

In 2003, the head of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry president David K. Curtis seemed to hedge his group's longstanding position on the role sugar drinks play in causing tooth decay. Before receiving funds (and at least now, long after receiving the funds), the group stated that "frequent consumption of sugars in any beverage can be a significant factor" contributing to dental disease. But just after obtaining a $1 million grant, Curtis said that the "scientific evidence is certainly not clear on the role that soft drinks play."

The anti-hunger community, too, has longstanding ties to food and beverage companies, many of which provide needed food, as well as money, to local food banks. But it's fair to ask whether the money that respected groups like the Food Research and Action Center and Feeding America take from Coke, Pepsi, and another sugar-drink maker, Kraft, prevents the anti-hunger groups from being better advocates for nutrition. Both groups oppose changes to the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, formerly known as food stamps, that would remove sugar drinks from eligibility under the program. (Of course Kraft, maker of Capri Sun and Kool-Aid, has inherited knowledge of the tobacco playbook, having once been part of Altria, parent of Philip Morris.)

And reporters, take note: Even a professional organization representing journalists has taken money from Big Soda. In this case, the grant is from PepsiCo, to the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, toward internships and scholarships.

(Big Soda's long history of using its philanthropy to buy friends, silence potential critics, and otherwise sweeten its profits is the subject of a new report from CSPI.)

Of course, comparing food and tobacco only gets you so far. Everyone must eat and drink; everyone need not and should not smoke. But the status of soda and other sugar drinks as "food" is hanging by a thread. Unlike other foods, most sugar drinks provide nothing of positive nutritional value to the diet. That's a pretty serious problem considering that sugar drinks are the single biggest source of calories in the diet.

Though the links between soda consumption and disease may not be as solid as the link between smoking and lung cancer, the evidence is mounting in both clinical studies and in epidemiology that sugar drinks cause obesity, diabetes, heart disease, gout, and other health problems.

Food isn't tobacco. And Coca-Cola isn't Philip Morris. But the playbook is the same, and we ignore it at our peril.

For more by Michael F. Jacobson, click here.

For more health news, click here.