Emanuel teams with soft-drink giants to combat obesity

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New York City barred convenience stores and restaurants from selling outsize sodas. Boston's mayor halted pop sales and soft-drink advertising in city buildings to fight obesity and rising health care costs.

In Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel plans to take millions of dollars from the soft-drink companies to pay for government worker health care. On Monday, he stood with executives from three giant soda-makers to announce the city will compete against San Antonio for a $5 million national beverage lobbying group grant that will reward city workers for being healthy rather than making it tougher or more expensive for them to guzzle sugary pop.

In addition to the wellness competition, the city will collaborate with Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and the Dr Pepper Snapple Group to combat Chicago government workers' girth by adding calorie information to pop machines. Emanuel said giving people information and rewards is better than tighter restrictions because it emphasizes personal responsibility.

But a food policy watchdog group said accepting the money sets a "terrible precedent."

"The (vending machine) labeling will give the industry a nice PR boost, and maybe it should. But they will also get positive PR for what might be called a bribe to Chicago and San Antonio," said Michael Jacobsen, executive director of the food policy watchdog Center for Science in the Public Interest. "One intention of the program is to focus on softer and broader (health) campaigns that do not address soda, instead of any specific municipal action that does target sodas."

Emanuel, who indicated he doesn't want to pursue a New York-style 16-ounce serving size limit or a proposed tax on sugary drinks that a Chicago alderman put forward, said the new program isn't a payoff from the soft-drink industry to avoid more punitive measures.

"I believe firmly in personal responsibility," Emanuel said at a City Hall news conference. "I believe in competition, and I believe in cash rewards for people that actually make progress in managing their health care."

Chicago employees will compete against city workers from San Antonio to see which workforce is healthier to try to win prize money from the American Beverage Association.

The organization will make payments to individual workers who meet health care goals, and the balance of the money will go to the city whose workforce shows greater gains in meeting its goals in 2013. Details on the soft-drink industry-sponsored health care competition are still foggy. The mayor said the exact standards are being worked out, but he mentioned losing weight and quitting smoking as likely benchmarks that could earn a worker money.

Emanuel said city employees will be able to earn $1,000 each during the competition, but an administration spokesman said the amount has not been finalized.

The mayor touted his city wellness program, which municipal workers are not required to join, as a model for helping workers get healthier on their own initiative. If employees or their spouses don't sign up for that program, which aims to cut health care costs by using checkups and counseling to prevent workers from getting expensive sicknesses like diabetes or heart disease, the administration charges them an additional $50 per month for health insurance.

Unlike Boston, where Mayor Thomas Menino last year ordered city departments to phase out the sale and advertising of sugary drinks, pop vending machines will remain a common sight in Chicago city buildings.

Starting next year, however, calorie counts will be included for each drink. Calorie labeling is something the soft-drink companies are expected to have to do anyway as a requirement of the Affordable Care Act, but specific rules on the issue have not yet been finalized and enforced.

Emanuel and soft-drink executives were surrounded at the morning news conference by large banners depicting vending machines from each company with the calorie data listed.

Steve Cahillane, president and CEO of Coca-Cola Refreshments, welcomed the partnership with Emanuel and said it's unfair to simply target soda when looking for causes of America's weight problem.

"Sugar-sweetened beverages, on average, are about 7 percent of the diet. Because we're part of the diet, then of course we're part of a problem, but it's a broad problem and it's energy balance: calories in, calories out," he said.

With increasing evidence that soda is an unhealthy choice for children, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and other soft-drink manufacturers have been retooling their products to reduce calories and sodium. They also have been funding physical activity programs and financially supporting research and education in nutritional science.

Backers of this kind of collaboration say addressing the country's obesity epidemic requires the kinds of public-private partnerships advocated by first lady Michelle Obama in her Let's Move initiative. They say it makes sense to use the food industry's resources to reach more people.

But Elissa Bassler, CEO of the Illinois Public Health Institute, said government partnering with industry sends "mixed messages," and personal responsibility can only go so far in unhealthy food environments.

"I believe information is important and the calorie counts are providing that," Bassler said. "But I think the evidence is fairly strong that environments play a critical role in what people consume. So changing environments is going to have the broader impact. The research is very clear that reducing access to sugar-sweetened beverages is important because they have significant impact on the obesity epidemic."

Ald. George Cardenas, who introduced a plan in February for a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks, applauded the mayor's effort Monday. "You always want to do the carrot and the stick," said Cardenas, 12th.

The alderman isn't quite ready to completely drop the idea of a tax increase on pop, a plan that has yet to gain any traction at City Hall. "You always keep your options open," said Cardenas, who chairs the council's Health Committee.

Chicago already has a special soda tax of 3 percent of a distributor's gross sales receipts, on top of regular sales tax rates. That 3 percent is usually factored into vending machine prices.

Next month, voters in two small California cities will decide whether to enact a penny-an-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages.

Susan Neely, president and CEO of the American Beverage Association, said at the Chicago news conference that financial bonuses and calorie listings are more effective than taxes and restrictions.

"We think these kind of things are going to get a lot further faster than bans or fights over discriminatory taxes, which there's research after research that says they will not work, they will not change behavior," Neely said.

Tribune reporter Hal Dardick contributed.

jebyrne@tribune.com

meng@tribune.com

Twitter @_johnbyrne

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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