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Leaked emails show how Coca-Cola tried to sway Hillary Clinton on a soda tax

The Democratic presidential nominee's ties to big soda are very relevant to public health.
The Democratic presidential nominee's ties to big soda are very relevant to public health.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The hacktivist website DC Leaks has released a set of emails that reveal how Hillary Clinton’s campaign seemed to backpedal from supporting a soda tax after an executive from Coca-Cola bristled.

The exchanges show cozy ties between the sugary drink giant and Capricia Marshall, a campaign associate who has deep ties to the Clintons and had previously worked as a paid consultant for Coca-Cola. (Marshall was Hillary Clinton’s special assistant when she was first lady, and was a deputy assistant and social secretary for President Bill Clinton; she continues to informally support and travel with Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, according to Politico.)

The emails in question are from April, when Hillary Clinton came out in favor of the soda tax in Philadelphia aimed at reducing the consumption of sugary drinks. At the time, Clinton said she was "very supportive" of the levy, which would generate revenue for universal preschool in the city, among other things.

That position seemed to change after angry emails from Coca-Cola, according to the leaks.

Coca-Cola executive Clyde Tuggle wrote to Marshall to let her know he was disappointed in Clinton: "Really??? After all we’ve done?" he wrote in an April 20 email. "I hope this has been falsely reported." For context, the soda industry has been pouring millions of dollars into battling these tax measures in cities across the US. Coca-Cola has also donated up to $10 million to the Clinton Foundation, and the food giant and foundation have collaborated on public health commitments and economic development initiatives.

Marshall then forwarded Tuggle’s email to Sara Latham, another former Coke consultant and Clinton insider. (Latham was a communications adviser for Bill Clinton, and was recently appointed chief of staff for John Podesta, chair of the 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign.) "Are you looking into this and I should sit tight?" Marshall asked. Latham quickly replied, "Yep. I'll look into this morn, so don't ask HRC - yet... ;-)"

Again, neither of these women formally worked for the Clinton campaign. But over at Politico, Helena Bottemiller Evich had some insights that suggest their ties to the Democratic frontrunner were strong enough to influence her soda tax rhetoric.

According to Evich’s story, Latham and Marshall moved quickly after receiving the email from Tuggle, and got confirmation that Clinton would back away from the soda tax issue:

What exactly happened next is unclear from the email string, but according to the messages, some of those involved tried to schedule phone calls with one another, more news clips were shared, and calls were made. And by midday, Katherine Rumbaugh, vice president of government relations for Coca-Cola North America, had pulled together intelligence suggesting Hillary Clinton, despite her remarks, was perhaps not really all that on board with the whole soda tax idea.

Rumbaugh didn’t just get that confirmation from anyone: It came from Clinton’s senior policy adviser Jake Sullivan. Here’s Rumbaugh in another email: "[W]e’ve confirmed that there is no continued conversation around beverage taxes today and in future engagements — campaign is not going to drive conversation here or weigh in further. Also, Jake Sullivan confirmed that they are not driving this from a policy POV. We’re also working on how to walk this back."

Evich’s take: "[The exchange] offers a rare window into the policy apparatus of the Clinton campaign and the deep connections Coca-Cola enjoys there at multiple levels."

It’s also possible that Rumbaugh is exaggerating and Clinton still supports the tax. (I asked the Clinton campaign for comment on the exchange and the campaign's current soda tax policy position, and have so far received no reply.)

But if this is the walk-back it seems to be, that's relevant to public health for a few reasons. We now have a big pile of evidence linking sugary drink consumption to chronic health problems like obesity and diabetes. And the soda tax has become increasingly appealing to cities as a way to not only curb soda consumption but also raise much-needed revenue. The taxes have been supported by everyone from labor unions to the World Health Organization.

We also have a big pile of evidence that the food industry is engaged in continual warfare to beat back these public health measures.

On November 8, four US cities, including San Francisco and Oakland, California, will vote on soda tax ballot measures. If they follow Berkeley and Philadelphia and pass levies of their own, more cities will likely follow suit. If Hillary Clinton becomes the next president of the United States, we have to wonder whom she will be most likely to listen to when it comes to future soda tax measures: public health advocates or the beverage industry?

At a time when diet-related chronic diseases like obesity and diabetes are becoming one of the most pressing health issues globally, the answer matters.