Children's Hospital gets $10 million for obesity program from beverage nonprofit

Posted: March 17, 2011

When City Council was considering a soda tax last spring, doctors from the Children's Hospital of Philadelphia testified about the dangers of sugar-sweetened drinks. On Wednesday, the hospital announced that it would expand its obesity program with the help of $10 million from the very industry that produces them.

The money could as much as triple the number of overweight kids that Children's Healthy Weight Program will serve in the next three years. But critics said it undermines the hospital's independent voice.

"There's no question that the Children's Hospital will do good with the money," said Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. "The question is, at what cost?"

The three-year grant is the inaugural gift from the Foundation for a Healthy America, a nonprofit created by the American Beverage Association.

The industry first made the offer last spring, when City Council members were debating Mayor Nutter's proposed 2-cent tax on every ounce of sugar-sweetened beverages sold in the city. The tax was projected to bring in $20 million for obesity-prevention measures and more money for the general fund. The idea fizzled in May without going to a vote.

Children's CEO Steven Altschuler said the agreement was fully vetted and does not impose restrictions on research.

"We can study soda," he said. "We can study whatever we want."

The Healthy Weight program, which had an annual budget of $440,000, will double its staff of 10 and may move to a bigger space, Children's spokesman George Bochanski said.

The number of children it treats each year, about 225, could triple. Outreach and education through Children's Hospital's large network of pediatricians could grow 10 times over, Bochanski said.

Altschuler said he had begun meeting with health insurers in the region. They often don't cover obesity treatment unless it's part of care for diabetes or some other illness. He hopes that the program's research will help change that. "To tackle some of these very large public-health issues, you can't do it alone," Altschuler said. "You need the help of industry."

Altschuler pointed to Children's 13-year partnership with State Farm Insurance to study teen driving and improve safety. Critics say there's more at stake in this deal.

"Would [Children's] take money from Philip Morris to do work on tobacco control?" Brownell said. "It's preposterous. And the fact that they have persuaded themselves that this is acceptable is the most startling piece of this."

Nancy Huehnergarth, director of the New York State Healthy Eating and Physical Activity Alliance, e-mailed Altschuler on Wednesday, asking him to return the "tainted, special-interest money."

Ten million dollars is significant, said Gary Foster, director of the Center for Obesity Research and Education at Temple University, who also has accepted research money from the beverage industry. His center was one of several contracted by Coca-Cola to study the impact of fortified diet soda on weight loss, and it received about $500,000, he said. The results are being written now. On the Children's grant, he said, "I think there are inherent conflicts in accepting that much money from an industry that has been significantly implicated in the obesity epidemic."

Several researchers said they would watch how the hospital managed the grant: Does the program expand access to care and produce legitimate research? And how will the hospital react if its data reflect negatively on its benefactor?

Larry Ceisler, spokesman for the coalition of bottlers, Teamsters, and others who opposed the tax, said the grant fit with the industry's long history of philanthropy.

Nutter has said he won't introduce the soda tax again this year. But similar measures are being considered in other states, including Texas, Utah, and California.

And the city's fight continues, led by Health Commissioner Donald F. Schwarz, who was a pediatrician at Children's before joining the city in 2008. Schwarz would say only that he trusted his former colleagues.

He told City Council last year that Philadelphians drink about 60 million gallons of sugar-sweetened beverages in a year - nearly half a liter per resident each day. He pointed to the effectiveness of taxes on cigarettes in reducing usage.

The city maintains a website about sugary drinks at foodfitphilly.org and has been running a television ad using stimulus money. In the vending machines at City Hall, water, diet sodas, and fruit juices now dominate the selections and 20-ounce bottles of soda have been replaced by 12-ounce cans. Nutter said through spokesman Mark McDonald on Wednesday that he had great respect for the researchers and physicians at Children's. "I'm sure that the fact that money from the beverage industry is involved will raise some eyebrows," he said. "But, in the end, CHOP will control the research and independent study will be done."


Contact staff writer Chelsea Conaboy at 215-854-4193 or cconaboy@phillynews.com.

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