Soda companies weigh in on obesity

by Rob Cullen on January 25, 2013 - 1:04 AM

A more honest soda ad would look something like this.

A more honest soda ad would look something like this.

During the cola wars of the 1980’s and 90’s, soda companies’ biggest competitors were each other– as they launched massive ad campaigns to fight for customers, overall soda consumption skyrocketed. By the end of the millennium  we were drinking 53 gallons per person every year– that’s about half a liter of soda every day. Recently that’s been changing though: Americans have started to realize that drinking hundreds of extra calories worth of high fructose corn syrup can’t be great for our health and are drinking way less of the stuff. At the same time, soda has become a major target as local governments try to deal with widespread obesity.

This week, the (soda) empire fights back with (1) a misleading new ad campaign from Coca-Cola; and (2) a lawsuit to block New York City’s efforts to reduce soda consumption.  

Coke’s new ads

Soda revenues have fallen 40% in the past decade, as people consume more coffee (up 50%), and other beverages. As long as two-thirds of adults and a third of children are obese or overweight, there probably won’t be a shift back towards soda drinking any time soon. Instead, many local and state governments have considered taxing soda to reduce consumption and help pay for some of the health costs of obesity.

And so the new Coke ad portrays the company as a responsible corporate citizen working to fight obesity (while at the same time pushing their profitable non-soda drinks) and head off criticism that soda is in any way responsible for the obesity epidemic:

An initial survey of consumers responded positively to the ad, describing it as “very informational,” which is disturbing for a number of reasons.

For one, it’s hard to believe Coke is truly concerned about its customers’ health while the company is being sued by the Center for Science and the Public Interest for making  “deceptive and unsubstantiated claims”  in its Vitaminwater labels and ads. In response, lawyers for Coca-Cola argued that “no consumer could reasonably be misled into thinking Vitaminwater was a healthy beverage,” despite the fact that it was promoted by athletes with campaigns containing lines like, “kiss me, I’m healthy,” and a “healthy state of physical and mental well-being” (not to mention that it’s called VITAMINwater):

CSPI is also in court in another case against Coca-Cola over deceptive claims by the company that its Enviga green-tea-flavored soft drink has “negative calories,” thus promoting weight loss.

Meanwhile the juices, lemonades, and iced teas that Coke is “voluntarily” selling in school vending machines often contain as much sugar as the sodas they replaced:

But the biggest problem is Coke’s assertion that “all calories count, no matter where they come from.” This is basically the same argument that Coke and other soda companies have made against soda taxes– that in the fight against obesity, soda is being unfairly singled out. Yet as Aaron Carroll, a professor of pediatrics and health policy at Indiana University, points out, not all calories are created equal:

The calories from sugar drinks are utterly empty. They’re just sugar. There’s no more nutritional value from a soft drink than a pixy stix. Except, of course, for the fact that a pixy stix has less calories than a can of soda. And no sodium.

Obesity is complicated, and I’m not saying that sugar beverages are the only, or even the major cause. But they’re certainly part of it. And if we need to find something to cut out of our diets, there are few options with less redeeming value then sugar drinks.”

Also, as we wrote back in June, evidence shows that calories from beverages are particularly likely to lead to weight gain, because they don’t make us full– we tend to consume them on top of our regular diets. Since we wrote that post, yet another study– this one published in The New England Journal of Medicine– has linked sugary beverages to obesity.

And since soda doesn’t really fill us up, it’s  easy to consume hundreds of calories in a sitting, thanks to enormous serving sizes, like 711’s 64-ounce Double Big Gulp. Which brings us to the New York City court case.

The NYC lawsuit

We wrote about NYC’s move to limit soda sizes to 16 ounces or less, back when it was first announced. The beverage industry responded by filing a suit to block the ban, and this week the first courtroom arguments ended without an immediate ruling.

One of the more interesting developments in the case is that the NAACP’s New York state branch and a network of Hispanic groups have joined the legal effort to block the size restrictions. Given that African Americans and Latinos have higher rates of obesity than other groups, it seemed like a weird move.

The NAACP and the Hispanic Coalition say they’re concerned that minority-owned delis will be at a disadvantage compared to chain stores under the new rules (it’s a little unclear why though). Critics say their support might have something to do with the money these groups have received from soda companies recently. For example, just last month Coca-Cola announced it was giving a $100,000 grant to the national NAACP to support a healthy-lifestyles program. And the Hispanic Coalition’s former president left for a job with Coke in February.

In any event, there has been a lot of debate over whether Bloomberg’s cup size limit is a good idea. Some have argued that taxing soda would be smarter, forgetting that in 2010, a proposed New York state soda tax was killed by the beverage industry. As Michael Jacobson, executive director for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, has told reporters, if Coke was serious about helping to reduce obesity, it would stop fighting every attempt to reduce soda consumption, not just run ads claiming to care about the issue:

“It looks like a page out of damage control 101. They’re trying to disarm the public.”

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