Campaigners are lobbying for the repeal of regulations prohibiting the use of federal funds for public health messages which focus on specific foods or drinks. As the US soft drinks industry campaigns against the introduction of a tax on soft drinks to pay for healthcare reform, it now faces further pressure. Ben Cooper reports.

As the prospect of a tax being levied on sugary soft drinks to fund healthcare reform appeared to recede, the soft drinks sector had more to ponder this week as a prominent health advocacy group pushed for changes in rules governing the allocation of federal funds for public health messages.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is lobbying for the repeal of a measure introduced in 2003 under President George Bush which prohibited federally funded public health messages from naming specific foods.

The policy has its roots in a 2003 US Department of Agriculture (USDA) memorandum prohibiting the use of Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds for disparaging or criticising any food. The memorandum followed lobbying from the soft drinks industry about state campaigns which urged consumers to drink less soda.

Speaking to just-drinks, CSPI legal affairs director Bruce Silverglade said the organisation was optimistic that the Obama administration would revise this measure.

Interestingly, in a speech to the American Medical Association Conference on Monday (15 June) on healthcare President Obama referred specifically to cutting consumption of junk food, and tellingly used that precise term. The President said preventive measures should include "cutting down on all the junk food that's fuelling an epidemic of obesity, which puts far too many Americans, young and old, at greater risk of costly, chronic conditions".

"We're cautiously optimistic that the Obama administration will change the 2003 Bush policy," Silverglade said. "We haven't spoken to the department yet but given the changes in the administration and the new leadership at the USDA we're cautiously optimistic that officials there will take a hard look at this policy and hopefully revise it."

The reason that soft drinks are the focus of the CSPI campaign is twofold. In the first place, it believes the evidence of a direct link with obesity is stronger for soft drinks than for any other type of food or drink. It said the fact that the 2003 memorandum had followed lobbying from the soft drinks sector was another factor.

However, Silverglade said the principle was that public health messages should be allowed to name specific foods, and limiting such campaigns to advocating a balanced diet "just doesn't cut it". He added: "The food industry likes to hide behind the mantra that every food can be part of a balanced diet but that just doesn't make sense from a public health education standpoint." He said there was evidence from instances where states had used other funds to mount campaigns targeting specific foods that such campaigns had produced positive results.

The American Beverage Association (ABA), which represents US soft drinks companies, has not yet commented on the issue.

However, not all academics are convinced about the CSPI's contentions. Dr Liz Applegate, director of sports nutrition at the University of California, Davis, said: "Obesity causes are complex and research clearly shows there is no one food to blame. Instead, we must focus on lifestyle and overall dietary practices that contribute to obesity."

Applegate added: "We do not serve the public well by giving them the notion that one beverage - soda - is the reason they have steadily gained weight. Rather than singling out an individual food, beverage or ingredient, I urge our government to promote healthier lifestyles."

This ensuing debate over health education messages comes as a rather more intense debate in the US over the taxation of soft drinks appears to be coming to a head. The Senate Finance Committee has been lobbied by industry and public health advocates on the proposal that taxes could be raised on soft drinks and alcohol to help fund President Obama's ambitious healthcare reforms.

Campaigners may be optimistic that the sea change in the White House may precipitate changes in how Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program funds are distributed, but the prospect of a tax on soft drinks appeared to have receded a fortnight ago, when Senator Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee, described the plans as being on "on life support".

Yesterday (17 June), a group of public health advocates, including CSPI, the American Public Health Association, the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, Partnership for Prevention, Shape Up America! and Trust for America's Health, wrote an open letter to Senator Baucus which reiterated the contention that soft drinks are the only food or beverage directly associated with rising obesity.

"While many factors contribute to weight gain, soft drinks are the only food or beverage shown to have a direct link to obesity, which in turn can lead to hypertension, strokes, heart attacks, diabetes, cancer, and arthritis, and other health and psychosocial problems," the letter read.

However, the ABA continues to lobby hard against the possibility of a tax. "The complexities of healthcare reform aren't going to be solved by a tax on soda pop," Kevin Keane, a spokesman for the ABA, said on Tuesday (16 June). "It's discriminatory. Why single out one product? It would not even make a dent in addressing the healthcare challenge or the obesity challenge."