Kahn-man? Richard Kahn Defends the ABA

Editor’s Note: We are pleased to present this guest post by our colleague Derek Fields.

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Dr. Richard Kahn. Source: The New York Times.

Many readers may not be aware that the American Beverage Association, along with the California Retailers Association and the California State Outdoor Advertising Association, is involved in an ongoing lawsuit against the City of San Francisco. The ABA and their friends sued the city last July over a city ordinance that would ban soda advertising on city property and would require a warning label much like the one proposed by California State Senate Bill 203, which CrossFit supported with its California Invasion Tour last November.

The label that the ABA is suing over would only go on ads in the City of San Francisco rather than on all beverages in the State of California, but the language of the warning itself would be the same.

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The lawsuit reached an important point on January 12 this year when Richard A. Kahn submitted his Expert Report. The report makes the case over about 60 pages that,

There is no scientific consensus that added sugar (including added sugar in beverages) plays a unique role in the development of obesity and diabetes.

– Dr. Richard Kahn

Kahn has an impressive resume that seemingly qualifies him to shed light on this case. After all, he was Chief Science Officer for the American Diabetes Association and was a board member and panel participant with the “Smart Choices” program, which was supposed to help consumers identify healthier food choices.

It’s worth noting, though, that as Chief Science Officer, Kahn was a “top executive” at ADA, according to the NY Times. During his time, ADA signed “a three-year, $1.5 million sponsorship deal with Cadbury-Schweppes, the world’s largest confectioner.” Dr. Kahn defended the ADA’s Cadbury deal, saying in 2005,

There is not a shred of evidence that sugar, per se, has anything to do with diabetes.

– Dr. Richard Kahn

He elaborated on that position here.

The ADA tells a different story today. Their website now warns against drinking sugar-sweetened beverages and points out that “research has shown that drinking sugary drinks is linked to type 2 diabetes.”

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Kahn defended the diabetes organization’s deal with Cadbury. Source.

During Kahn’s time, the ADA focused on treatment, not prevention, because he thought it was too hard for most people to stop eating junk food. Boston.com said:

Faced with financial pressures, A.D.A. officials say they try to focus on practical solutions, like treatment options, more than lifestyle modifications. It is not favoritism toward pharmaceutical companies, as some suggest, Dr. Kahn said. It is skepticism toward the notion that many Type 2 diabetics have the discipline to eat less and exercise more. Ninety percent of the people out there still can’t lose 10 percent of their body weight and keep it off for four years, he said.

The Smart Choices program wasn’t quite as obviously for consumers’ health as one would hope either. Pepsico, Coca-Cola, Tyson, Conagra, Kellogg’s, Kraft Foods and General Mills used the Smart Choices label on products such as Kool Aid, Froot Loops and Cocoa Puffs. Credible national news sources had the following to say about the Smart Choices program:

  • According to Forbes, “Between 2008 and 2009, the 14 corporations paid a combined $1.47 million to fund the development of Smart Choices, a labeling initiative that stamps a green seal of approval on the front of food packaging to indicate healthier fare to consumers.”
  • According to CBS, companies paid up to 25k per product as a Smart Choice “application fee.”
  • According to the NY Times,  “Companies that participate pay up to $100,000 a year to the program, with the fee based on total sales of its products that bear the seal.”
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Kahn’s Smart Choices program put a healthy food label on Froot Loops.

“Smart Choices” was shut down after the FDA warned it could mislead consumers. The FDA commissioner noted,

There are products that have gotten the Smart Choices check mark that are almost 50 percent sugar.

– FDA Commissioner Margaret Hamburg

ABC Interviewed Kahn before the program was shut down. Kahn told his interviewer, “The Froot Loops of yesteryear are not the Froot Loops of today. They’re actually better because the company reformulated the product so that it could get the Smart Choices [label]. And that’s what we want them to do.”

Later in the video Kahn says that a serving of Froot Loops represents “something like 5% of the total amount of sugar consumed by the average child in the course of a day. So it really isn’t…I’m not here to advocate for Froot Loops.” CBS points out that the new reformulated product is still a whopping 41 percent sugar. Sugar is still the major ingredient.

So, Kahn is the man giving the Expert Report against San Francisco on behalf of the American Beverage Association. After taking a look at Kahn’s history we turned to the report itself. The report contains 73 footnotes, and based on the context of each footnote, we decided that Kahn used 41 of those footnotes to support his argument, which is, once again, that, “There is no scientific consensus that added sugar (including added sugar in beverages) plays a unique role in the development of obesity and diabetes.”

Out of those 41 citations, 29, or 71 percent, refer to studies that are openly connected to money from Big Food or Big Soda (28 of the 41 are funded by Big Soda specifically, not just the food industry). It’s also worth noting that Kahn criticizes two studies and neither of those two are connected to Big Food or Big Soda as far as we can tell. (The rest of the citations are descriptive rather than argumentative in nature).

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It’s only fair to mention that we can’t find any direct connection between Kahn and money from Big Soda. He worked on some of the studies that he cites in his expert report with individuals who are soda funded, but we haven’t found money going to Kahn himself. That doesn’t mean that he’s never taken money from the industry though–only that he hasn’t as far as we can tell.

Though Kahn may not be funded by Big Soda himself, it’s worth reminding readers that we’ve covered the industry’s corrupting influence on science before. The fact that over 70 percent of Kahn’s citations refer to industry-funded studies is troubling. In “Have Coca-Cola and PepsiCo Corrupted the Health Sciences? Part 1,” the Russells called attention to the following graph based on this study, which shows that while 83 percent of independent studies find a link between consumption of sweetened soft drinks and population weight gain, exactly 83 percent of studies funded by the food industry found no link whatsoever.

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So, Richard Kahn has proclaimed that there is no relationship between sugar and diabetes, defended the American Diabetes Association’s deals with candy companies, helped develop and defend a program that was shut down after the FDA warned it was misleading consumers to believe that sugary products were healthy and reported on behalf of the American Beverage Association in their case against the City of San Francisco, mostly using studies funded by the same industry that’s suing the City to support his arguments.

Are Kahn, the ABA and their friends really concerned with a “misleading” label in this lawsuit, or do they have another agenda? One has to wonder, given their record of misleading the public on the topics of sugar, obesity, and diabetes, and the disproportionately industry-funded studies they use to make their arguments now.

3 comments

  1. Pingback: ACSH: Off the Coke Teat, Still Trying to Suck | THE RUSSELLS

  2. ellocomarko

    I like what you did with the independent versus industry funded but looking at only 17 studies is a paltry number and asks the question of you were cherry picking to make a point that isn’t there. Is there an analysis of 100’s of studies out there which finds a discrepancy? If the difference between industry funded and independent was even 20%, that would say a lot.

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