City turns down beverage-industry funds from Children's Hospital for anti-obesity program

Donald F. Schwarz, a physician who is now a deputy mayor and health commissioner, oversees seven departments: public health, behavioral health, human services, the Free Library, the Fairmount Park Commission, the office of supportive housing, and recreation.
Donald F. Schwarz, a physician who is now a deputy mayor and health commissioner, oversees seven departments: public health, behavioral health, human services, the Free Library, the Fairmount Park Commission, the office of supportive housing, and recreation. (MICHAEL LEVIN / Inquirer Staff Photographer)
Posted: September 13, 2011

The Nutter administration has turned down an offer from Children's Hospital of Philadelphia to fund an antiobesity program through city health centers, because the money to pay for it would come from one of the administration's political adversaries, the nation's beverage industry.

The city's health commissioner, Donald F. Schwarz, confirmed last week that Children's had approached the city with a proposal to pay for a program aimed at educating young people about issues involving food intake and exercise.

Neither the details of the program nor the amount of funding was specified, Schwarz said, because he cut off discussions with Children's when he learned that the funding originated with a $10 million grant from a foundation set up by the American Beverage Association.

"My position is that that shouldn't happen," said Schwarz, a pediatrician who was division chief of adolescent medicine at Children's before he joined the city administration in early 2008.

"We should not be receiving funding from the beverage industry to fund a program in the city . . . because we wouldn't take funding like that from other industries, like the gun industry or the tobacco industry," Schwarz said. "We have taken a stand that opposes the products that they sell."

Mayor Nutter agrees with his health commissioner.

"He doesn't want the money even if it passes through" the hospital, said Nutter's press secretary, Mark McDonald. "We're appreciative of the programs CHOP is engaged in regarding obesity, and we have our separate programs. They're not in any way contradictory, we're working in the same area, but this is the mayor's view on this: He doesn't want to be accepting money from that group."

For two years, the administration has tried and failed to persuade City Council to establish a 2-cents-an-ounce tax on soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages.

While city and School District budgets needed the money, initially estimated at $77 million a year, Nutter and Schwarz also made clear that they wanted to discourage soda consumption, especially among children.

Scientific studies have linked sweetened drinks to increased risks of obesity in both children and adults, among other medical conditions including diabetes and hypertension.

Children's Hospital - whose doctors testified in City Council about the dangers of sugar-sweetened drinks - announced last March that it had accepted a three-year, $10 million grant from a nonprofit foundation set up by the beverage group.

Hospital spokesman George Bochanski said the money would be used both to expand clinical operations, probably tripling the number of overweight youngsters to be treated in its Children's Healthy Weight Program, and for evidence-based research on causes, prevention, and treatment of obesity.

If successful in documenting causes of obesity and new ways to treat it, the research could have broad implications, Bochanski said, perhaps suggesting new directions for public policy or persuading the insurance industry to fund antiobesity treatments that are now left to families to shoulder.

Bochanski declined any detailed comment on Children's recent discussions with the city, but he suggested those talks were continuing.

"As far as we're concerned, our relationship with the city remains a positive one," Bochanski said. "We will continue to look for opportunities to work with the city in the future, and to work with other entities on anything that moves the obesity prevention issue forward."

City Council members were mixed on the administration's decision.

"If in fact it's true that the offer was made, then I think it's a lost opportunity, despite where the money's coming from," said Councilman James Kenney. "The beverage industry is a normal business operating in this city. What's the difference between this and taking a grant from a foundation or a bank, or accepting some contribution to defray the cost of a school superintendent's exit?"

"Children's Hospital is the preeminent medical institution of its kind in the country," Kenney continued. "I don't understand why you would keep them from being involved in your efforts to fight this obesity problem."

Councilman Bill Green said the city seemed to be looking a gift horse in the mouth.

"You have people in an industry behaving responsibly, responding to what the mayor and our health commissioner say is a serious health concern, by providing resources to the Health Department to combat obesity," Green said. When the city is making painful decisions about budget cuts in other areas, Green continued, "we shouldn't refuse resources that are provided for what is a stated objective of the administration, fighting obesity."

Councilwoman Blondell Reynolds Brown, the leading supporter of the proposed soda tax in Council, said she was pleased that with its grant to Children's, the beverage industry seemed to be acknowledging some degree of responsibility for childhood obesity.

"I'm OK with the city's decision not to accept their financial help," she said. "The city has already secured its dollars and is addressing the obesity problem in its own way."

Reynolds Brown suggested that Children's reach out to other agencies and organizations, like the School District, the Girl Scouts, or Big Brothers Big Sisters, that would be happy to work toward its goals.

Larry Ceisler, a local spokesman for the beverage industry, declined to comment on the discussions between Children's and the city.

"The grant from the beverage association was given to Children's Hospital to augment and expand an already-existing program they had to deal with childhood obesity," Ceisler said. "There were no strings attached. . . . CHOP operates that program independently and they are the ones who control it."

The city is using about $25.4 million in federal stimulus money for a two-year project to reduce tobacco use, promote exercise, and encourage healthy nutrition. About $15.2 million of it is devoted to exercise and nutrition issues, bearing on the obesity problem, according to a Health Department spokesman.

The city program includes a 30-second television spot that takes a healthy whack at the beverage industry.

It features a mother driving a car, with her chubby son, about 10, in the passenger seat. "The doctor says he's overweight," she worries to herself. "He looks fine to me. And he's at risk for diabetes?"

"Half of Philadelphia's kids are overweight or obese, increasing their risk of diabetes," a narrator says.

The mother eyes a bottle of orange soda within reach of her son. "And that stuff doesn't help," she says.

"Soda and fruit drinks are a big part of the problem," the narrator says. "One soda has as much sugar as two candy bars. Do you know what your kids are drinking?"

The mother parks the car. "We'll fix this," she says. "I just wish I'd known sooner."

Federal money for the city's antiobesity efforts is scheduled to run out next March, according to Schwarz, who is deputy mayor for health and opportunity as well as health commissioner.

Schwarz said there was some money in the city's budget to continue some of its antiobesity activities beyond March. The city has also applied for additional federal funds, he said.


Contact staff writer Bob Warner at 215-854-5885 or warnerb@phillynews.com.

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