by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Soft drinks

Dec 7 2009

Saving the earth: Coca-Cola?

I greatly admire the work of Jared Diamond.  His book, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fate of Human Societies, is as clear an explanation as you will ever get of how the inequitable distribution of favorable geography, climate, and natural resources affects the development and maintenance of human societies.

But here he is, incredibly, in the Sunday New York Times writing a fan letter to corporate social responsibility for protecting those favorable environments.  He writes:

There is a widespread view, particularly among environmentalists and liberals, that big businesses are environmentally destructive, greedy, evil and driven by short-term profits. I know — because I used to share that view.  But today I have more nuanced feelings…I’ve discovered that while some businesses are indeed as destructive as many suspect, others are among the world’s strongest positive forces for environmental sustainability.

And which corporations does he include as “strongest positive forces?”  Chevron, Walmart, and Coca-Cola.   I’ll leave discussion of Chevron and Walmart to others, but Coca-Cola?

Coca-Cola, Diamond says, is protecting the world’s water supplies.  The company needs clean water in the 200 countries in which it operates.  This, says Diamond:

compels it to be deeply concerned with problems of water scarcity, energy, climate change and agriculture. One company goal is to make its plants water-neutral, returning to the environment water in quantities equal to the amount used in beverages and their production. Another goal is to work on the conservation of seven of the world’s river basins, including the Rio Grande, Yangtze, Mekong and Danube — all of them sites of major environmental concerns besides supplying water for Coca-Cola. These long-term goals are in addition to Coca-Cola’s short-term cost-saving environmental practices, like recycling plastic bottles, replacing petroleum-based plastic in bottles with organic material, reducing energy consumption and increasing sales volume while decreasing water use.

Please note the future tense.  These are things Coke says it plans to do.  As for what the company is doing now, Diamond does not say.  His piece does not mention Coke’s negotiating with officials in developing countries to buy water at rates significantly below those charged to local communities, a topic under much discussion when I was in India last year.  It does not mention campaigns in India to hold Coke accountable for its abuse of local water rights or any of the similar campaigns in other countries.

Diamond’s piece does not talk about the efforts Coke puts into selling bottled water at the expense of local water supplies.  As described by Elizabeth Royte in her book, Bottlemania, companies like Coke exhibit every one of of the characteristics formerly deplored by Diamond in attempting to secure plentiful and reliable sources of cheap local water: in his words, “environmentally destructive, greedy, evil and driven by short-term profits.”

Diamond says he sits along side and has gotten to know and appreciate the motives of many corporate executives.  Me too.  Personally, many of them mean well and wish that they could do more to be socially responsible.  But they work for businesses that are required, by law, to make short-term profit their reason for existence.  This means that corporate social responsibility is necessarily limited to actions that bring visible – and immediate – returns on investment.

We need some critical thinking here.  If Diamond gave any thought at all to what Coca-Cola produces – bottled water and sodas – he would surely have to agree that less of both would be good for our own health and that of the planet.

Oct 2 2009

Coca-Cola reveals calories?

Well, sort of reveals.  Coca-Cola announces that it will put calories on the front of its packages (so you don’t have to search for and put on glasses to read the Nutrition Facts).  You can see what the label will look like in the story in USA Today.

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This sounds good but I view this action as another end run around FDA’s proposed regulations.  In March 2004, the FDA proposed to require the full number of calories to be placed on the front of food packages likely to be consumed by one person, like a 20-ounce soda for example (see figure).  A 20-ounce soda is 275 calories, not 100.

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If Coca-Cola followed that FDA proposal, a label of a 2-liter bottle would have to say 800 Calories right on the front of the package.

This idea got stuck in Bush administration but there’s a good chance the new folks at FDA might take it up again.

Is Coca-Cola serious about helping people avoid obesity?  If so, maybe it could send out a press release distancing itself from those consumer-unfriendly ads run by the Center for Consumer Freedom (see previous post).

Here’s another question: Does Coca-Cola fund the CCF directly or indirectly through the American Beverage Assocation or some other industry trade group?  I will believe that they might really have an interest in consumer health when I know they have no connection whatsoever to CCF and its current ad campaigns.

Oct 1 2009

The soft drink industry strikes back

Today’s New York Times carries this full-page ad taking on the New York City Health Department’s campaign against sodas.

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Although the ad says it’s paid for by the Center for Consumer Freedom (CCF), it doesn’t take much to guess who paid that group for it.  What better way to fight back than to hide behind this particular public relations agency, which specializes in defending purveyors of unhealthful products.

What CCF is about – and which companies pay for its work – are well known (for starters, see previous post).

I’m guessing the Health Department’s campaign must be having an effect if soft drink companies are so worried that they are willing to fund a group that is so consumer unfriendly.

Addendum:  no wonder they are worried.  According to a new report on soda taxation from Center for Science in the Public Interest, President Obama has said the idea is worth considering.

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And thanks to Fred Tripp for giving me yet another CCF ad, this one from the September 30 A.M. New York.   All of this must be making soda companies worried enough to sign on with CCF.  Not a good idea.

Update October 2: I’ve just been send a link to Rachel Maddow’s comments on Rick Berman, the head of CCF.  Look for “Meet Rick Berman.”  It gives an overview of CCF accounts.  I’m not sure when it aired.

Sep 17 2009

Soda taxes: the new frontier

If I read the tea leaves correctly, soda taxes are on their way.  Kelly Brownell and Tom Friedan broached the idea earlier this year.  York state tried and failed to implement them.

Since then, as we learn more about the role of sugary drinks as a factor in obesity, public health support for the idea is growing.  Last week, Jim Knickman, President of NYSHealth wrote an op-ed in the New York Post in favor of the taxes.    Now the New England Journal of Medicine – as prestigious a journal as they come – is publishing another article from  Brownell, Frieden, et al on the public health and economic benefits of taxing sugary soft drinks.

And the evidence accumulates daily.  Children and adults who habitually drink sodas are more likely to be obese and have worse diets than those who do not.  The latest study from the California Center for Public Health Advocacy and a policy research group at UCLA makes just this point.

The study found that 41 percent of children (ages 2 – 11), 62 percent of adolescents (ages 12 – 17) and 24 percent of adults drink at least one soda or other sugar-sweetened beverage every day. Regardless of income or ethnicity, adults who drink one or more sodas or other sugar-sweetened beverages every day are 27 percent more likely to be overweight or obese.

The result of all this is what the New York Times is calling in its print headline, “tempest in a soda bottle.”  I’d call it a Category 5 hurricane.

As I love to point out, it did not used to be OK for kids to drink sodas all day long.  Now it is.  Taxes might encourage some changes in these recent practices.  It will be interesting to watch this idea progress.

Later in the day: as for pushback, here is a link to the ad from the “Americans Against Food Taxes.”  Why am I thinking this is an astroturf client of the Center for Consumer Freedom?  Just a wild guess.

Sep 1 2009

The Beverage Association responds

I promised to post some of the responses to the New York City Health Department’s new campaign against sugary drinks.  Here’s what the New York Times has to say.  Still reeling from the American Heart Association’s recommendation to reduce sugars from soft drinks (see previous post), the Beverage Association has issued this statement:

The messages being spread about beverages by the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene are so over the top that they are counterproductive to serious efforts to address a complex issue such as obesity. Like most foods, soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages are a source of calories. Simply naming one food source as a unique contributor minimizes a disease as complex as obesity. The key to energy balance and maintaining a healthy weight is counting calories in and calories out, not focusing on specific foods or abstaining from any one food or beverage in particular. While we support the campaign’s desire to help people lead healthier lives, we do not believe the campaign imagery represents a serious effort to address a complex issue such as obesity…Further, the beverage industry provides an array of beverages with a wide range of calories, including zero calories…all of which can be part of a balanced lifestyle [my emphasis].

Yes!  Drink water!  Preferably out of a tap!

Aug 31 2009

NYC Health Department’s new campaign: Pour off the Pounds!

The ever intrepid New York City Health Department launches a new campaign today: Stop drinking soft drinks or else you are “Pouring on the Pounds.”

It explains the rationale for the campaign in a bulletin.  In short, as described in the press release:

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“On average, Americans now consume 200 to 300 more calories each day than we did 30 years ago. Nearly half of these extra calories come from sugar-sweetened drinks. When Health Department researchers surveyed adult New Yorkers about their consumption of soda and other sweetened drinks, the findings showed that more than 2 million drink at least one sugar-sweetened soda or other sweetened beverage each day – at as much as 250 calories a pop…. The Health Department advises parents not to serve their kids punch, fruit-flavored drinks or “sports” and “energy” drinks…. If you order a sugar-sweetened beverage, ask for a “small.”….if you enjoy sugar-sweetened beverages, make them an occasional treat and not a daily staple.”

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What?  Soft drinks add empty calories that nobody needs? These sound like fighting words!  I can’t wait to hear the response of the Beverage Associations and will post them as soon as they come in.  Stay tuned!

Jun 9 2009

The soda tax debate: more of the same

On June 3, the New York Times editorial page endorsed the idea of a tax on sugary sodas, and I especially liked the way the writer placed the issue in context:

Bigger fixes are needed, of course, starting with decent health care. The young need more exercise, healthier lunches and better education on nutrition. All consumers — not just those lucky enough to live near farms or large grocery stores — should be able to buy fresh fruits and vegetables at affordable prices. While we wait, Congress could impose an excise tax on sugary drinks — one of the main culprits in the obesity epidemic.

Yesterday, the Times published three letters in response, a set remarkable for concisely summarizing the same tired, old arguments.

From the American Beverage Association: “Balancing calories consumed with those expended through physical activity is the critical factor in preventing obesity. Therefore, we must continue to educate Americans about the importance of energy balance.”  Yes, but that won’t be enough.  As I have explained in previous posts, overeating calories has a much greater impact on weight gain than physical activity has in preventing it, and plenty of those overeaten calories come from sugary drinks these days.

Another writer, complaining that personal responsibility and parental responsibility have been lost in this discussion, then goes on to propose precisely the non-personal, societal approaches that the editorial was promoting: “Let’s try removing soda machines from our schools, providing healthier school lunches and ensuring that our gym classes are financed.”

Good ideas.  But I still think soda taxes could be an interesting experiment, well worth a try.

May 20 2009

The temptation of soda taxes

David Leonhardt’s column in the business section of today’s New York Times, takes on soda taxes.  It’s starting point is the New England Journal of Medicine article (see earlier post) by Kelly Brownell at Yale and New York City Health Commissioner Tom Frieden, the newly appointed head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention .  Leonhardt notes that such taxes are Pigovian (after the economist Pigou): they discourage unhealthful practices and encourage healthful ones.  As he puts it, “In coldly economic terms, you can make a case that calories are the single best candidate for a Pigovian tax.”

Leonhardt finds arguments for soda taxes compelling.  He tried, but could not get any soda company executive to speak to him about them (why am I not surprised).

I’m intrigued by the accompanying illustration.  In the last ten years, the cost of fruits and vegetables has gone way up.  The cost of sodas is way down.  Isn’t something wrong with this picture?  Isn’t now a good time to try to fix it?

Update June 3: Editorial in the New York Times: “While we wait [for bigger fixes], Congress could impose an excise tax on sugary drinks – one of the main culprits in the obesity epidemic.”

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