- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 18, 2014

Are you now, or have you ever been, a shill for Coca-Cola?

A conservative think tank denounced Tuesday a nutritional advocacy group for its attacks on Olympic figure skater legend Michelle Kwan for being a pusher of soft drinks while sitting on President Obama’s fitness council, while the group doubled down on its position.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) had said Miss Kwan’s dual roles as a Coca-Cola “ambassador” to the Olympic Games in Sochi, Russia, and her membership on the Council on Fitness, Sports, and Nutrition were “unacceptable.”

It “cannot be reconciled, since Coca-Cola and the President's Council communicate opposing messages when it comes to sugar drinks,” CSPI said while going on to note that of the nine athletes on the council, “at least five are current or former endorsers of sugar drinks.”

“Council co-chair Drew Brees, quarterback for the New Orleans Saints, has appeared in Pepsi commercials, for instance,” the group said. “Olympic sprinter Allyson Felix has endorsed Gatorade, and Chris Paul of the Los Angeles Clippers endorses Powerade.”

“Allowing makers of sugar drinks or junk foods to rent Michelle Kwan or other council members is unacceptable,” said CSPI director of health promotion policy Jim O’Hara.

On Tuesday, though, Jeff Stier, senior fellow of the conservative National Center for Public Policy Research, said CSPI’s “absolutist view” was “absurd” and said it undermines public-health efforts “by suggesting that people who enjoy an occasional sugary beverage cannot be active, athletic and healthy.”

Michelle Kwan’s Coca-Cola endorsement does not suggest consumers drink too much soda. If anything, it conveys that people who do enjoy soda, can do so in moderation while also avoiding a sedentary lifestyle,” Mr. Stier said.

Mr. Stier also said CSPI’s attack implied a social agenda, and he called the group the “food police” and enforcers of the “nanny state.”

“This latest campaign against food and beverage manufacturers further supports the conclusion that when it comes to addressing obesity, the most prominent public health activists are intent on turning the discussion about obesity into a war, rather than a solvable problem.”

A spokesman for CSPI pointed to the council’s own guidelines on Tuesday in response.

The council’s guidelines for “how to eat healthy” include “[drinking] water instead of sugary drinks” as one of eight goals people can try incorporating into their diet: “Cut calories by drinking water or unsweetened beverages. Soda, energy drinks, and sports drinks are a major source of added sugar and calories in American diets.”

“Soda companies use athletes to inoculate themselves against the studies, which link sugary drinks to obesity, diabetes and other health problems,” CSPI spokesman Jeff Cronin said in an email. “By endorsing Coca-Cola, Michelle Kwan is giving the impression that sugar drinks are somehow linked to fitness and health, when in fact the opposite is true.”

Mr. Cronin also dismissed the conservative group’s criticism, saying it had “been a while since I’ve heard about the National Center for Public Policy Research.”

This was because “presumably reporters have been less likely to cite the [group’s] role in the years since the Abramoff scandal,” he said, referring to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who resigned from the group’s board of directors in 2004.

Mr. Stier ridiculed that response on his Twitter account Tuesday evening.

“The best @CSPI can do? Attack @NationalCenter for being a victim in a scandal nearly a decade ago — years before I was there,” he wrote.

In addition, CSPI may also have an enemy higher up the Fitness Council chain of command — Mr. Obama himself. The president provided Coca-Cola with a bit of free product placement Tuesday.

While appearing at a Safeway distribution center in Upper Marlboro to push higher fuel-efficiency standards in trucks, Mr. Obama spoke in front of a truck emblazoned with the Coca-Cola logo.

Neither the White House nor Coca-Cola responded to requests for comment Tuesday.

Dave Boyer contributed to this report.

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