CrossFit brings lobbyists to its war on soda

CrossFit brings lobbyists to its war on soda
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The fitness giant CrossFit is turning to K Street in its fight against soda companies, hiring the Podesta Group.

The company and its founder and CEO, Greg Glassman, have been waging “war” against -soda-makers, including their reported involvement in funding health studies.


“We’re in a holy war with Big Soda,” Glassman told a crowd at a gym in California earlier this year. “It’s killing this country’s health.”

The company’s contract with Podesta Group — which lists David Marin, former staff director to the House Oversight Committee, as the lobbyist on the account — will deal with “oversight of conflict of interest rules and regulations related to academic research funded by government agencies,” according to disclosure forms. -LegiStorm first reported the hire.

“CrossFit cares deeply about combating chronic disease. A big part of the problem has been the corruption of the health sciences; groups promoting bogus science to advance their business goals,” Marin told The Hill in an email. “That corruption has public health consequences.”

The company “has turned to the federal government because of the life-and-death role the Feds play in determining health policy and promoting and funding and elevating health science,” he said. 

Glassman stormed Capitol Hill in September, speaking at an event hosted by Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.). He talked with lawmakers about conflicts of interest in health research, among other issues.

The advocacy push is pitting CrossFit against the American Beverage Association, a trade group for the soda industry.

Marin said that the fitness giant is up to the task, citing its successful advocacy against a local Washington D.C. regulation that would have required fitness instructors and personal trainers to obtain a professional license. 

Several reports have linked industry groups — including those representing the sugar, soda, meat and egg industries — to studies or agencies that evaluate health risks and prescribe dietary guidelines. Those organizations have pushed back on any accusations of a conflict of interest.

“We have a right — and a responsibility — to engage in scientific research,” the American Beverage Association said in a recent statement. “The research we fund adheres to the highest standards of integrity for scientific inquiry based on recognized standards by prominent research institutions.”

Soda companies have funded a number of the studies that examine the relationship between sugary drinks and conditions like obesity and Type 2 diabetes. 

Of 60 studies conducted on the subject since 2001, almost half found no connection between soft drinks and health issues. The researchers who carried out the 26 studies that found no links had financial ties to the beverage industry, according to a report published on Oct. 31 in the Annals of Internal Medicine.

Another study, from 2013, published in the journal PLOS Medicine, found that studies funded by the sugar industry or soda companies were five times more likely than studies authored without financial conflicts to determine that there is no connection between sugary drinks and weight gain. 

The controversy over the health research comes at a time when the soda industry has been on the defensive.

Efforts to tax soft drinks have been popping up in states and cities nationwide. To date, there have been 43 attempts to enact soda taxes around the country. Only seven cities — four in California — have been successful, some after multiple attempts.

“While we may disagree with some on discriminatory taxes, our work with public health and civic groups to actually reduce calories and sugar consumption is a stronger way forward to bring about lasting change,” an American Beverage Association spokeswoman said in an email. “We will remain engaged in public health issues because we, too, want a strong, healthy America.”

Last year, CrossFit launched a campaign called “Crush Big Soda” seeking the passage of a bill in the California legislature that would have placed tobacco-style warning labels on vending machines and sugary drink packaging. The warning would read: “Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.”

“Health warning labels empower consumers to make informed choices about what they purchase,” the website says.

S.B. 203 stalled in the legislature this January for the third year in a row.

“Addressing obesity and diabetes is more complicated than a warning label, which is why California’s legislators have repeatedly rejected misguided policies like SB 203,” the American Beverage Association told the Los Angeles Times prior to the vote. 

The American Beverage Association spent more than $30 million on advertising in opposition to soda tax initiatives in 2016, according to Vox. Supporters of the initiative such as former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and groups such as the American Heart Associations spent more than $11 million.

Some of CrossFit’s advocacy efforts have drawn scrutiny, such as one tweet last year from the company that featured a bottle of Coca-Cola with the words “open diabetes” next to the image. “Make sure you pour some out for your dead homies,” the text of the tweet read, attributing the quote to Glassman. 

The tweet was met with a backlash on social media, primarily from individuals with Type 1 diabetes — including musician Nick Jonas — and the parents of children with Type 1 diabetes, a disease not caused by weight gain.

“This is about the scourge of Type 2 diabetes and it’s underlying causes,” read a statement from Glassman to ABC News about the tweet, which also accused Jonas of being a paid spokesman for Coca-Cola — a claim a representative for Jonas denied, although CrossFit maintains that Coke sponsors concerts featuring Jonas and others.

“The rest of Glassman’s statement was so aggressive, it was not suitable to print,” ABC News said.

Soda companies have also engaged in controversial advocacy campaigns, lending funds to organizations that focus on a lack of exercise as the culprit for weight gain.

Coca-Cola provided $1.5 million in funding to help start a now-defunct organization called the Global Energy Balance Network, which was led by scientists and researched the causes of obesity. 

Following a New York Times report of the soda giant’s involvement and pressure from public health officials, the group shut down last year. The group repeatedly denied that Coca-Cola had any sway over its findings, and one public university returned a $1 million grant from Coke used to launch the group.

The American Academy of Pediatrics, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and a global health initiative called Exercise is Medicine also announced they would end their relationships with Coca-Cola. 

Exercise is Medicine is a campaign run by American College of Sports Medicine that works with the health community to “encourage physical activity as a chronic disease health intervention.”

“At the Coca-Cola Company we are focused on our path forward. We are evaluating our approach to obesity and exploring how we can be a more helpful and credible partner to the communities we have served for 130 years,” said a spokesman for the company. “We are continuing to listen and learn from the public health community and other stakeholders.”

Coca-Cola has been posting disclosures of where it donates money for “health and wellness activities” since last September, and the website is updated every six months.

“Our support for scientific research was based on the desire to identify a more holistic, workable approach based on the best evidence,” said Coke CEO Muhtar Kent in a statement last year. “Clearly, we have more work to do to reflect the values of this great company in all that we do.”


— This post was updated at 11:15 a.m.