Opinion

Michael Bloomberg and the Global War on … Soda

Even though he served 12 years as mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg’s most memorable moment in office might be the ban on big soda he tried (and failed) to put in place before the courts put a stop to it. In his position as a World Health Organization global ambassador, Bloomberg has been able to take his anti-sugar crusade global: just last week, the organization issued a global call for taxes on sugary drinks that mirrors campaigns Bloomberg is funding all across America. At the same time, his activities raise worrying questions about just how much influence private donors can have over United Nations policies.

The famous “soda ban,” of course, was Bloomberg’s ill-fated attempt to limit the size of New York soda cups to 16 oz. The city didn’t try to limit the number of sodas a person could buy, just the size of the cups they could be served in. Bloomberg’s rationale for the ban was that it would strike a blow against the state’s obesity epidemic by “forcing (consumers) to understand that you have to make the conscious decision to go from one cup to another cup.” The mayor had essentially declared war on Big Gulps.

Unsurprisingly, the idea was roundly panned as a comical example of the nanny state run rampant. The backlash was not limited to the right, either: Jon Stewart delivered what might be the most damning indictment from his seat as host of “The Daily Show.” Bloomberg was on his own, and the ban was finally overturned in 2014 on the grounds that it was “arbitrary and capricious.” Since leaving office, however, the former mayor has taken his fight against soda far beyond the confines of New York City. The soda ban was reincarnated (at least in spirit) as a tax on sugary drinks in Berkeley, Calif., which was followed by a similar motion in Philadelphia this year. Both pro-sugar tax campaigns were bankrolled by Bloomberg. With votes scheduled on the issue in San Francisco and Oakland later this year, the billionaire will be opening his wallet again to make sure the outcomes go the same way.

Thanks to his role as the World Health Organization’s global ambassador for noncommunicable diseases (NCDs), Bloomberg is in a position to go after big soda in every part of the globe. His impact has been almost immediate: Within two months of becoming the ambassador for NCDs this past August, the WHO issued a call for all countries to levy a tax on sugary drinks. Bloomberg’s fingerprints may be all over this latest announcement, but it’s hardly the first time the WHO has waded into controversial waters by making dietary recommendations.

Last June, the WHO’s cancer research body backtracked on its classification of coffee after more than two decades, downgrading it from “possibly carcinogenic to humans” to “unclassifiable.” Even so, the International Agency for Research on Cancer refused to give coffee an entirely clean slate: They maintain that drinking excessively hot coffee may still cause esophageal cancer, whilst admitting that there is limited evidence to support this claim.

Before its about-face on coffee, IARC previously raised eyebrows with its classifications of red and processed meat and the widely used agricultural pesticide glyphosate last year. The meat findings provided meat for plenty of “bacon gives you cancer” headlines, but IARC’s glyphosate verdict touched off a scientific firestorm by pitting it squarely against every other environmental agency to evaluate the substance. Both the European Food Safety Authority and three other WHO agencies, including the WHO/Food and Agriculture Organization, maintains that glyphosate does not cause cancer, and an EPA evaluation that came to the same conclusion was mysteriously yanked from the record in May.

The slew of controversies IARC has stepped in has prompted Congress to launch an investigation into the organization’s use of U.S. funding, with House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform chair Jason Chaffetz citing IARC’s “record of controversy, retractions, and inconsistencies” in asking why it should be continued to be funded. IARC’s methodology has also been called into question by EFSA, mainly because it looked at herbicide products with other ingredients rather than glyphosate on its own, leading to what EFSA’s scientists considered misleading results.

If the investigation into IARC ultimately throws its access to U.S. government funds into doubt, a major problem plaguing the WHO (and the United Nations as a whole) could become even more drastic. As it stands now, the global health body is constantly coming up short in terms of government funding; during the Ebola outbreak and the WHO’s flat-footed response, those budget constraints proved they can have truly deadly results. Things have gotten especially bad as a result of cutbacks in donor funding in the wake of the financial crisis, and the WHO had to cut $1 billion from what ultimately became a $3.98 billion two-year budget.

That shortfall in funding has forced the WHO to turn increasingly to private donors, like Michael Bloomberg and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The Gates Foundation on its own has now surpassed the United Kingdom as the WHO’s second biggest source of funds. This generosity, however, comes with serious strings attached: private donors can effectively pay to have their own agendas taken up, thereby diluting the organization’s independence and diverting resources from other less fashionable (or less profitable) causes.

A “People’s Health Movement” is now speaking out against the pharmaceutical industry’s control over the global health agenda, and the Gates Foundation has been singled out for the way in which it encourages the WHO to pursue patented vaccines and treatments over more affordable generic alternatives. In doing so, they price many of the world’s most needy out of the market for the lifesaving medications vulnerable populations require. By effectively purchasing himself an important position in the WHO, Bloomberg is helping perpetuate this corporate takeover the global health agency.

 

Steve Sherman is an author, popular radio commentator, and former Iowa House candidate. His articles have appeared nationally in both print and online for Townhall, Human Events, Clash Daily, Washington Times, Washington Examiner, Red Alert Politics, Forbes and others.

Morning Consult welcomes op-ed submissions on policy, politics and business strategy in our coverage areas. Submission guidelines can be found here.

Do NOT follow this link or you will be banned from the site!