City Unsure If Soda Really Makes You Fat

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The New York Times got its hands on some internal e-mails today that show how desperate city health department officials were to sell a "soda makes you fat" campaign in an effort to boost support for a penny-per-ounce soda tax proposal that ultimately fizzled.

The e-mails, obtained by the Times under the state's Freedom of Information Act, show a "protracted dispute" between city health commissioner Thomas Farley and three of his employees ("including," the Times notes, "his chief nutritionist," Cathy Nonas) about the "scientific validity of directly linking sugar consumption to weight gain."

According to the Times, the advertising campaign (called "Pouring on the Pounds") was a collaboration between advertising agency Bandujo and the city's health officials. It produced print ads for 1,500 subway cars and a YouTube video showing "a young man sucking down fat from a can" that officials hoped would "go viral."

The video, it turns out, was the center of the e-mail controversy because of its claim that "Drinking 1 can of soda a day can make you 10 pounds fatter a year. Don't drink yourself FAT."

While department officials, including one of the nutritionists who expressed concerns in the Times' e-mails, are standing by the video's final tagline (a department spokesman told the Times they "came up with a phrase that everybody could live with," and Nonas added that it's "totally supportable to say 'can'"), the e-mails nonetheless show that the "soda = fat" assertion raised serious concerns about the campaign's message:

On August 20, 2009, Nonas, the department's chief nutritionist, wrote: "As we get into this exacting science, the idea of a sugary drink becoming fat is absurd." The scientists, she said, "will make mincemeat of us."

On August 18, 2009, Dr. Michael Rosenbaum, a professor of pediatrics and clinical medicine at Columbia University, told Nonas: "Basic premise doesn't work."

On July 1, 2009, Sabira Taher -- whom the Times points out has a master's degree in public health and is the campaign manager for health media and marketing for the department -- wrote: "I think Dr. Farley really wants to say something about 'gaining 15 pounds of fat in a year.' We know gaining and losing weight isn't that cut and dry -- some people can drink and eat whatever they want and still maintain their weight without doing an incredible amount of exercise to burn off the extra calories. I think going this route would raise a lot of skepticism within the public about our message."

Other e-mails solicited advice from Jeffrey Escoffier, the department's director of health media and marketing, additional advice from Rosenbaum, and even the opinion of a health sociology professor at Harvard University.

But the disagreement over disclaimers and real science ended up proving too much for the health commissioner, who stuck to his guns and supported the "10 pound sentence." He did suggest adding a disclaimer about the added effect of diet and exercise, but it was dropped from the video's final cut. Can't let anything obfuscate the wanton misdirection, fear-mongering, or that all-important "gross-out factor," after all.

In the end, the soda tax proposal fell flat, although Bloomberg has since shifted his focus to seeking a ban on food stamps for soft drinks.

[shernandez@villagevoice.com]


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