At its 76th annual meeting in 2008, the U.S. Conference of Mayors adopted a resolution in support of increased resources for obesity prevention, which made a strong case for reducing sugary drink consumption, due to its contribution to obesity in America.

The 2008 document described the issue of obesity and its associated health problems, especially among children. The resolution cited a 500 percent increase in sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) consumption over the last half century, and specifically pointed to “substantial scientific evidence, including epidemiologic and experimental studies [that] supports a causal relationship between the consumption of calorically-sweetened beverages and obesity and overweight.”

The resolution very clearly made the case that decreasing SSB consumption is an important step in reducing obesity and concluded with the Conference supporting “increased resources for cities to help combat obesity and fund obesity prevention, including consideration of revenues from the major leading contributors of the nation’s obesity epidemic, including calorically sweetened beverages, fast food and high calorie snacks.”

In 2010 the U.S. Mayors online Newspaper featured an article describing a number of mayors’ considerations of “soda taxes” to reduce obesity, and increase public health resources. It pointed to specific efforts aimed at reducing SSB consumption by mayors like Michael  Bloomberg of New York City and Michael Nutter of Philadelphia. The article concluded by saying that the USCM supported an “array of strategies” to reverse the childhood obesity epidemic, then specifically cited the 2008 resolution addressing sugary drinks. 

The next year, according to a source at USCM, the American Beverage Association approached the Conference and became a “platinum member” of the Mayors Business Council. In June 2011, the USCM announced a childhood obesity prevention program in partnership with the ABA. The ABA pledged $3 million over three years, which would be split among six cities each year. The grants would support the winning cities by “highlight[ting] initiatives in cities that are designed to encourage healthy weight through balanced diet choices and regular physical activity.”

The awards to all of the cities over the first three years totaled about $1.3 million. I reached out to the USCM to ask if the original $3 million pledge had changed, or if the remaining $1.7 million had gone to something else, but at the time of this posting I have not heard back.  In January the ABA and USCM announced a three-year renewal of the program.

The 2015 first-place winner of the grant was Jacksonville, FL. Jacksonville will get $150,000 from the American Beverage Association for an initiative that targets youth, aiming to make fresh fruits and vegetables available at a cheaper cost, and to promote physical activity.

The second-place Large City winner was Seattle, WA, earning $25,000 for a program meant to increase fruit and vegetable consumption among at-risk kids, through farm-to-table initiatives. 

I asked the source at USCM why none of the initiatives in the Childhood Obesity Prevention Program targeted sugary drinks, especially since the group had so strongly and specifically made the case in 2008 for cities to focus on SSB consumption. The source told me that the programs are submitted to the Council by mayors, and that the grants that win are ones that are deemed most appealing to the broadest membership.

The application instructions for the grants offer two options for specific priority areas to be addressed: Increasing access to physical activity for children and youth, and improving access to fresh fruits and vegetables. There is no mention in the application of decreasing consumption of calorically sweetened beverages, fast food, or high calorie snacks, which are all specifically cited in the 2008 USCM resolution as contributors to the nation’s obesity epidemic.

I sent the list of this year’s winning grants to Marion Nestle, P.H.D., a leading expert on the food industry’s influence on public health policy and author of the book “Food Politics.”

“What’s interesting about the list is how terrific the projects look,” she wrote in an email. “All aim to increase fruit and vegetable consumption, physical activity, or even water consumption. It’s hard to argue that there’s anything wrong with those ideas. There isn’t, except that they deflect attention away from the real problem, which is overeating, especially of sugary drinks.”

The beverage industry seems to be obsessed with physical activity, as evident from the recent spate of stories about Coca-Cola funding studies that point the blame for obesity at caloric expenditure, rather than caloric intake. The science overwhelmingly does not support this.

Despite the recent attention, the beverage industry is sticking to its guns.  The day after I contacted the USCM about this story, I noticed that a new post had been added to the ABA’s blog, warning people to “look for the science in science reporting,” and reminding readers that journalists are not scientists. With that in mind, I asked Marion Nestle who is a molecular biologist, and an M.P.H. in public health nutrition, about the importance of focusing on SSBs in reducing obesity. 

“Reducing soda consumption is the first line of defense against obesity,” she wrote.  

I also sent an email to Yoni Freedhoff, M.D., an obesity doctor, professor, and author of the book “The Diet Fix,” to ask him how vegetable consumption and physical activity promotion compared to reducing SSB consumption, in their efficacy in reducing obesity.

“Given that 3 separate meta-analyses of the impact of increased physical activity on children’s weights have all concluded that exercise doesn’t move that needle, I think it’s fair to state that kids aren’t going to be outrunning their forks anytime soon,” he responded.

And there’s more science!

A recent Harvard study identified an excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages as the most cost effective way to reduce childhood obesity.

Wired recently reported on a study from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill that found that Mexico’s soda tax has resulted in as much as a 12 percent decline in soda consumption.

The American Public Health Association, the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Medical Association, The Institute of Medicine, and many other health and public policy organizations recommend reducing SSB consumption as one of the best ways to prevent obesity, and improve public health. Many of these groups also endorse an SSB tax as an effective means to reduce consumption, and/or to raise much-needed revenue for obesity prevention programs.

Seven years ago I would have included the U.S. Conference of Mayors on that list, but the source I spoke with made it very clear that the 2008 resolution has been misinterpreted as an endorsement of a soda tax. “Revenues from the sales of these items [soda, fast food, high calorie snacks]” does not necessarily mean a tax, and technically, the ABA grants are indeed revenues from the sales of soda.

But the revenues from soda companies that the USCM ended up actually receiving should be put into perspective. In 2012, the ABA spent $445,000 to help six cities promote fruits and vegetables and physical activity. In 2013, according to a report from the UConn Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, beverage companies spent $814 million dollars to promote the consumption of sugary drinks.

Houston, TX was a second place winner in 2012, being granted $25,000 by the ABA. According to a Rudd Center online SSB tax revenue calculator, had Houston enacted a penny-per-ounce tax on SSBs in 2013, the city would have earned over $95 million dollars which could have been put into public health initiatives. Jacksonville, FL, which won $150,000 this year, could have raised over $38 million from a similar tax in 2015.

So what happened? The USCM once upon a time seemed keen on reducing SSB consumption, and specifically cited the abundance of evidence that showed this would be an effective way to reduce childhood obesity. Instead of acting on that evidence, the USCM has accepted a relatively small amount of money from the beverage industry, one of the leading contributors to childhood obesity, for a series of programs that look good, but will be relatively ineffective in meeting their stated purpose.

The USCM source told me that the ABA never pressured the USCM to avoid focusing on sugary drinks. But by accepting the beverage industry money, the USCM puts itself in an awkward position. It’s a serious conflict of interest.

We can’t know for sure that the ABA decided to start giving money to the USCM directly in response to the Conference’s growing interest towards sugary drinks, but it does match a pattern of beverage industry money appearing in places where soda taxes are being discussed. The ABA grants are reminiscent of Coca-Cola’s $10 million gift to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia, when that city was considering a tax on sugary drinks.

I asked Marion Nestle if the grants were just a feel-good PR strategy, or a concerted effort to turn policy makers’ attention away from SSBs.

“It’s both,” she wrote. “It’s without question part of a systematic effort on the part of soda companies to promote goodwill and silence critics—strategies that have worked well for the companies until recently.”