Is the American Heart Association Pulling its Troops Out of State Beverage Fights?
20 Corporate Crime Reporter 23(1), June 1, 2006

Michele Simon was angry.

She was angry when she heard that the American Heart Association (AHA) had joined with the Clinton Foundation and the beverage industry last month to cut a deal that would limit high caloric beverages in schools – with loopholes.

Under the Clinton deal – sports drinks and diet sodas are allowed and marketing is allowed in high schools – and there is no legal enforcement mechanism.

Simon heads the Center for Informed Food Choices in Oakland, California.

She says that the Clinton deal will undermine the grassroots movement to ban beverage corporations from the schools – a grassroots movement that was giving the beverage industry fits all around the country – demanding that states, cities and school boards bar the corporate giants from public school property – not just regular Coke and Pepsi – but the diet varieties, the non-stop marketing, the sports drinks – the whole ball of wax.

The industry – which had negotiated for three months this year with a group of public interest litigators to limit high caloric drinks in schools – had not told these public interest groups that there was a parallel deal in the works that would pre-empt the deal they had been working on.

And Simon was told that in the wake of the Clinton deal, local AHA representatives were told that they could no longer push for legal limits on beverages in the schools.

“Some days after the deal came down, I heard from several state American Heart Association affiliates – including Oregon, Massachusetts, and Rhode Island – that they were told by the national AHA to pull back their support from pending state nutrition bills,” Simon told Corporate Crime Reporter.

While the AHA says that it does not take beverage industry at the corporate level, it does take beverage industry money at the local level.

The AHA says it is researching the question of how much beverage industry money it takes in every year and will provide the numbers when it gets them.

And the AHA’s Dr. Rose Marie Robertson defends the Clinton deal.

“We are extraordinarily pleased with this agreement,” Dr. Robertson told Corporate Crime Reporter.

What about the fact that there is no enforcement mechanism?

“The beverage industry has committed to do this, to meet these guidelines and it has committed to report on meeting these guidelines,” Dr. Robertson said. “This a substantial step further than the original beverage industry voluntary guidelines. Those suggested that their members follow certain guidelines. This agreement doesn’t say – we think that you should follow these guidelines It says – you will follow these guidelines. And it says every year, they will report the information.”

But Dr. Robertson fudges on the question of whether the local AHA representatives have been called off of the fight on legal limits on beverages in schools.

While saying there was no formal deal not to work on state legislative limits, Dr. Robertson said that “the great majority of the proposed legislation was in fact not as strong as the agreement that we reached.”

“We think that this agreement is based on sound science,” Dr. Robertson said. “We will support any legislative and regulatory change consistent with our science. We think this agreement is a good model for policymakers in terms of beverages. We hope we can get people to work hard on all of the other issues in schools – food, exercise – that are dealt with from an advocacy point of view.”

But Simon says that the right thing to do is to “get corporations out of schools.”

“Part of the problem is that the issue is being defined too narrowly,” Simon told Corporate Crime Reporter. “If we are only looking at childhood obesity, the issue gets defined as calories. And that is part of the problem with the Clinton deal – diet sodas are okay, for example. That’s one of the major loopholes in the deal. But the problem is really the corporate takeover of our schools.”

Simon said that for the first three months of this year, a team of public interest litigators and been secretly negotiating with a team of beverage industry lawyers on a deal that would head off threatened product liability litigation against the industry.

The public interest team consisted of Richard Daynard of the Public Health Advocacy Institute, Steve Gardner of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, and Richard Heideman of the Heideman, Nudelman & Kalik law firm in Washington, D.C.

The beverage industry team was made up of Jane Thorpe at Alston & Bird for Coca-Cola, Robert Biggart for Pepsico, and Patricia Vaughn for the American Beverage Association.

Simon says that in some ways, the deal that these group of lawyers were on the verge of cutting was stronger than the Clinton deal – marketing in schools was out, sports drinks were out.

But the at the end of March, the beverage lawyers said they needed an extra 30 days to contemplate their options.
No one said anything about a separate deal with the AHA and Clinton.

And then the public interest attorneys were blindsided when they heard about the Clinton deal from reporters who had been leaked the information.

“What Clinton agreed to is 100 percent voluntary,” Simon told Corporate Crime Reporter. “I would not have agreed to anything like that. We were operating under threat of litigation. I kept talking about the importance of enforcement. What was it going to look like at the other end of the negotiations? The purpose of doing something through the courts or through the legislature is that you create accountability and enforceability. This voluntary agreement that the Clinton people came up with is no better than what we had before. And the soda industry has played this game before. They have come up with voluntary standards already on their own, several times before. Industry’s number one goal is to avoid being regulated, whether by state legislation or through litigation. What this deal accomplishes is to give the illusion of regulation, without its reality. The food and beverage companies are employing numerous strategies to keep complete control, and that's what self-regulation is all about. It's a voluntary system that leaves corporations accountable to nobody.”

(For a complete transcript of the Interview with Michele Simon, see 20 Corporate Crime Reporter 23(10-16), June 5, 2006, print edition only)


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