Eating Away at Science

The sugar industry is fighting findings that link its product to obesity. And U.S. officials are echoing the companies' line.

The Bush administration took an extraordinary step early this year to defend the interests of U.S. sugar producers and the packaged-food industry, both of which count top executives among the president's biggest fundraisers.

In January, the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) sent a letter to the World Health Organization with dozens of objections to the scientific findings that underlie the WHO's effort to issue anti-obesity guidelines. Only eight months earlier, U.S. sugar manufacturers and other food industry groups had called for "the personal intervention" of HHS Secretary Tommy Thompson and urged him to challenge the WHO's scientific findings about obesity—most notably a dietary recommendation to limit consumption of sugar.

Sugar producers and the packaged-food industry have a big economic stake and liability risk in the outcome of this debate. Obesity-related medical costs totaled $75 billion in 2003 in the United States alone, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and obesity is closing in on tobacco as the nation's leading cause of preventable death. Meanwhile, diet-related chronic conditions like heart disease and type II diabetes have overtaken infectious diseases as the leading cause of death worldwide. If obesity is deemed as merely the result of an individual's lifestyle choices, then companies involved in producing unhealthy foods are off the hook. But if such products are seen as causing obesity, then the sugar and packaged-food industries could be in trouble. The draft version of the WHO's anti-obesity strategy, for instance, recommended taxing junk food and providing government subsidies for healthier products.

The final WHO guidelines are scheduled to be approved this summer, and before drafting them the WHO produced a summary of the scientific research, which finds a connection between obesity and unhealthy diets, including too much consumption of sugar and fatty foods. In April 2003, after this report was released, the Sugar Association and the Corn Refiners Association (which makes high-fructose corn syrup, the leading soft-drink sweetener) mobilized to have the findings revised. Not only did they call on HHS to take action, but the Sugar Association also wrote to the WHO threatening to have its allies in Congress eliminate the organization's U.S. funding if the WHO didn't rethink its anti-obesity work.   

The industry's leaders and representatives are certainly well positioned to make their views known in Washington, particularly to the president and his top advisers. The Bush campaign acknowledges, for instance, that its "Rangers"—fundraisers who bundle at least $200,000 in donations—include the sugar magnate Jose "Pepe" Fanjul Jr.; Richard F. Hohlt, a 2003 lobbyist for Altria, which owns Kraft Foods; and Robert Leebern Jr., a lobbyist who last year represented Coca-Cola. And in the campaign's class of "Pioneers"--bundlers of a minimum of $100,000; there's Robert A. Coker, a United States Sugar Corp. senior vice president; Barclay Resler, Coca-Cola's vice president of Government Relations; and Joe Weller, the chairman and CEO of Nestlé USA.

The sugar and food industry associations contend that the WHO's global strategy fails to recognize that personal lifestyle choices are as much a cause of obesity as diet. And in January, when the Bush administration sent its comments to the WHO, it raised exactly those objections, echoing the industry's mantra of individuals taking "personal responsibility." In a 28-page letter, the HHS Office of Global Health Affairs director William R. Steiger, who happens to be George H.W. Bush's godson, notes that the administration "supports personal responsibility to choose a diet conducive to individual energy balance, weight control, and health." The letter goes on to criticize the WHO scientific report's "linking of fruit and vegetable consumption to decreased risk of obesity," along with many of its other scientific findings. In response to these and other objections, the WHO decided to revise its guidelines.

HHS spokesman Bill Pierce denies that industry groups helped in drafting the department's criticisms. But, nonetheless, its January letter to the WHO discusses the value of industry input. "HHS would encourage the WHO to add more language on the role of industry and/or trade groups in addressing diet and nutrition," the critique says, "especially those representing the food and beverage industries."