City says ‘no thanks’ to obesity program because soda companies fund it; wasn’t always that way

Mayor Nutter has decided Philadelphia city health centers will not participate in an anti-obesity program run by Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia because the effort is funded in part through a $10 million grant by the soda industry.

But the city hasn’t always refused grants from industries it dislikes.

In the early ’90s, the tobacco giant Phillip Morris gave a multi-year grant to the mayor’s commission on literacy. Donna Cooper was the commission’s executive director then. She said the company wanted good press in urban areas, and while the effort funded good work, the relationship ultimately ruptured because Phillip Morris wanted a bigger role than the city could accept.

Cooper, who went on to be policy director in the governor’s office, said Nutter shouldn’t necessarily keep the program out of health centers, even though he fought the beverage industry over a proposed soda tax.

The city has to be clear about its terms, she said.

“There needs to be clarity that the mayor’s administration is not going to back down from its efforts to impose a tax on sugar drinks,” Cooper said. “And as long as people know, ‘I’m still going to go on the attack against you guys; I’m still going to try and tax this,’ and this can’t be a marketing arm, there might be a way to work this out.”

Nutter said he was aware of the Phillip Morris literacy grant in the 90’s, and said that if he were mayor he wouldn’t have accepted it. He said it’s not surprising the arrangement ended after disputes between the company and the city.

“It’s quite honestly a bad example of what can happen when you get into these arrangements with industries that have an agenda and they’re trying to push their product,” Nutter said.

“We have principles,” Nutter said. “You can’t buy this city hall.”

He added that sodas are “really nothing but fat in a bottle” and said he would continue to focus on making Philadelphia kids healthier.

Children’s Hospital spokesman George Bochanski said the beverage industry has no role in shaping the anti-obesity program the city declined to join.

Want a digest of WHYY’s programs, events & stories? Sign up for our weekly newsletter.

It will take 126,000 members this year for great news and programs to thrive. Help us get to 100% of the goal.