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Anger bubbles up in Congress over anti-obesity ads targeting soda

February 7, 2012 |  2:54 pm


Seattle

Taxpayer-funded anti-obesity ads targeting soda aren’t going down well with a Tennessee congressman, who has introduced legislation to prohibit federal spending on any campaigns targeting legal American-made products.

Republican Rep. Scott DesJarlais’s "Protecting Foods and Beverages from Government Attack Act" would prohibit the use of federal dollars for "scare campaigns" against products lawfully marketed under the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act.

He introduced the measure in response to ads, funded with federal economic stimulus funds, that target soda. A New York ad, for example, shows blobs of fat being poured out of a soda can and admonishing, "Don’t drink yourself fat."

"When I see stimulus money being used to attack American companies and American workers, I think it would be very unsettling to be working on the assembly line of Coca Cola, look up and see an ad that’s trying to hurt the very job that you make your wages and pay taxes from," DesJarlais said in an interview outside the House chamber.

"These advertisements strike at the heart of personal responsibility," DesJarlais added in a letter to congressional colleagues seeking their support for the measure. Food and beverage companies, he added, "should not have to be concerned that their very own tax dollars are being used against them."

The congressman, who’s a physician, added: "Dietary choices should be a personal decision, or they should be made by individuals in consultation with a doctor or dietitian."

But Dr. Jonathan Fielding, Los Angeles County's director of public health, said in an interview, "We need to educate people about what’s in the food that they eat." A Los Angeles County website features a bottle of soda pouring packs of sugar into a glass and says, "You wouldn’t eat 22 packs of sugar. Why are you drinking them?"

"Tobacco is a legal product, but if we hadn’t had government help in sponsoring ads that help people understand the harm from tobacco, where would we be today?" Fielding added. "Obesity is our biggest epidemic, so trying to attack it with both hands tied behind our back would make it very difficult."

A DesJarlais spokesman said that while it is appropriate for government to require companies to post the nutritional value of their products, it's not Washington's job to try to persuade people in what they should or should not eat.

A Seattle anti-obesity campaign shows a mother pouring sugar out of soda bottle into a glass and handing it to her child. "You’d never serve your kid a glass of sugar," it says. "Those extra calories can bring on obesity, diabetes and heart disease."

The American Beverage Assn. supports the legislation, which has been sent to the House Energy and Commerce Committee for consideration.

The panel’s top Democrat, Rep. Henry A. Waxman of Los Angeles, said: “Childhood obesity is a serious health issue, especially when considering that one-third of our nation’s children are overweight or obese….We should be promoting proven and promising interventions to address the childhood obesity epidemic and not putting arbitrary or ill-conceived limitations on campaigns and other initiatives that will help improve the health of our youth.”

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--Richard Simon in Washington

Photo: An anti-obesity campaign appearing in Seattle. Credit: Public Health -- Seattle & King County

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