by Marion Nestle

Currently browsing posts about: Soft drinks

Sep 18 2012

Today’s debate: The Wall Street Journal asks who’s responsible for preventing obesity?

Betsy McKay of The Wall Street Journal organized and moderated a debate on this question.  I was a participant along with Brian Wansink , the John S. Dyson professor of marketing at Cornell University and Michael D. Tanner, senior fellow at the Cato Institute.

The debate is lengthy—you can read all of it online—but here are my initial responses to the two questions asked of me.

WSJ: What role should government play in addressing the obesity epidemic?  

DR. NESTLE: The government is up to its ears in policies that promote obesity. To name only a handful: supporting production of food commodities, but not of fruits and vegetables; permitting food and beverage companies to deduct marketing expenses from taxes; permitting SNAP benefits [food stamps] to be used on any food, thereby encouraging food companies to market directly to low-income groups.

Research on the prevalence of obesity shows that after decades of remaining at the same level, it began to increase sharply in the early 1980s. Our sense of personal responsibility did not change then. What did change was the food environment, transformed by food industry imperatives to increase sales, to one that increasingly urged people to “eat more” by making it socially acceptable to eat anywhere, anytime, and in very large amounts. In this kind of food environment, all but the most mindful eaters overeat. Few of us are in that category.

The food, beverage and restaurant industries collectively spend roughly $16 billion a year to promote sales through advertising agencies, perhaps $2 billion of that targeted at children. Marketing to children is well established to encourage kids to want advertised products, pester their parents for them, and believe that those products are what they are supposed to be eating. The “I am responsible” argument does not work for children (I’m not aware of evidence that it works well for adults either). Because regular consumption of junk foods and sugary drinks is linked to obesity in children, marketing these products to them is overtly unethical.

To expect food and beverage companies, whose sole purpose is to increase sales and report growth in sales every quarter, to voluntarily stop marketing to children makes no sense. On ethical grounds alone, government intervention is essential.

Given the personal and economic costs of obesity—currently estimated at $190 billion a year—governments have many reasons to promote the health of their populations. Just ask the military.

WSJ: Let’s talk about some specific initiatives. Will Mayor Bloomberg’s cap on soda sizes reduce soda consumption? What about the proposed municipal tax of a penny an ounce on sugary drinks in Richmond, Calif.?

DR. NESTLE: If only education and personal responsibility worked to improve eating behavior. Brian Wansink’s research clearly shows that his own students, diligently educated to understand the effect of large food portions on eating behavior, will still eat more when given more food—and, more seriously, they will underestimate the amount they have eaten.

Education must be backed up by a supportive environment. So why not create a food environment that makes it easier for people to eat less? Mayor Bloomberg’s idea of capping soda sizes at 16 ounces is an interesting approach to doing just that. A 16-ounce soda is not exactly abstemious. It is two standard servings, 50 grams of sugar and 200 calories.

To suggest that food laws will not change behavior makes little sense. For one thing, anti-obesity initiatives have scarcely been tried. For another, the history of anti-smoking interventions suggests quite the opposite. Attempts to get smokers to quit by invoking personal responsibility made little headway. Smokers quit when the government made smoking so inconvenient and expensive that it became easier to stop than to continue.

The intense response of soda companies to Mayor Bloomberg’s cap on soda size is testimony to the effectiveness of regulatory approaches. The companies would not be putting this kind of effort or spending millions to oppose an action they expected to fail.

Sep 10 2012

California judge: Richmond cannot require anti-soda tax group to disclose donors

I’m following the soda tax initiative in Richmond, CA with rapt attention.  Richmond, as I explained last week, is a low-income city with a lot of obesity-related chronic disease and high soda consumption.

Residents will vote on its soda tax initiative in November.  In the meantime, the American Beverage Association has gone to work to spin the science, attack critics, and fund “community coalition” groups to oppose the initiative.

Richmond requires such groups to disclose their top donors on political mailings.  The soda-industry funded “Coalition” went to court to block this requirement on First Amendment grounds.

Now, according to Robert Rogers, the terrific reporter for the Contra Costa Times who has been working on this story, a federal judge in San Francisco issued a temporary restraining order doing just that.

Complete victory for our side,” said coalition spokesman Chuck Finnie. “(Judge Charles Breyer) indicated he doesn’t think (the ordinance) applies to us because we are not engaged in independent expenditures. (Breyer) indicated a city can’t require a campaign to publish political arguments under the guise of claiming it is a disclosure.

This will be back in court on September 18.

In the meantime, “Big Soda” is expected to spend more than a million dollars in Richmond to make its efforts look like a local campaign.

Here is the Statement on Ruling on Richmond Mailer Ordinance.

And here are related Contra Costa Times stories on the soda tax initiative.

Sep 6 2012

Big Soda sues to hide its funding of anti-tax campaign

Sometimes the actions of food companies defy credulity.

Get this: The Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, a “grassroots” group funded by the American Beverage Association, has taken the city of Richmond, California to court to block it from requiring disclosure of funding sources in election campaigns.

In case you haven’t been following this situation, the Richmond city council got a soda tax initiative (“Measure N”) placed on the November ballot.

Richmond is a low-income, mixed-race city (80% non-white), with an 11% unemployment rate, and an average household income of $23,000 a year.  It population is largely obese and drinks a lot of sodas.

You would hardly think a city like this would get on the radar of Big Soda, but you would be oh so wrong.

For details, we have to thank Robert Rogers who writes for the local Contra Costa Times.

Mr. Rogers has been following the money.

Because California requires lobbyists to register, he has been able to get hard numbers on the relative spending of anti-tax forces and those who favor the tax.  The difference is impressive.

The city of Richmond must have suspected that something like this would happen because the city council passed an ordinance that requires special interest groups to disclose who funds them in campaign literature.  They must list their top five funders.

You might think this idea entirely appropriate to a democratic society, but the American Beverage Association (translation: Coca-Cola and PepsiCo) does not.

According to Rogers’ account on September 4, Big Soda has sued the city in federal court to stop it from insisting that campaigns disclose who funds them.

On what grounds, pray tell?

The First Amendment, of course.

The suit, filed in federal court in San Francisco on Aug. 30, seeks an order barring the city from imposing its campaign ordinance on the Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes, a declaration that the groups’ First Amendment rights were violated and money to cover court costs.

The coalition is funded mostly by the American Beverage Association and has spent more than $350,000 locally in an effort to defeat a November ballot measure that could impose a penny-per-ounce tax on sales of all sugar-sweetened beverages in the city.

…Coalition spokesman Chuck Finnie said Tuesday that the law itself is unconstitutional and should not be applied to the anti-soda tax groups.

“The law in question is being enforced to prevent opponents of an unfair, misleading and misguided tax from being able to communicate effectively with Richmond voters,” Finnie said. “The sponsors of the Measure N tax don’t want voters to hear how the tax is going to raise grocery bills, hurt local businesses on which livelihoods depend, and the fact that city politicians would be free to spend all of the money raised by Measure N in any way they see fit and that not one penny must be used to fund anti-obesity efforts.”

In other words, revealing funding sources prevents “effective communication.”

The court will hear this suit on Friday.  Stay tuned.

In the meantime, here are the relevant documents, thanks to Robert Rogers.

Aug 28 2012

PepsiCo donates $100,000 to National Association of Hispanic Journalists

A blog post from Fernando Quintero on the Berkeley Media Studies Group’s site alerted me to PepsiCo’s latest example of corporate social responsibility: an additional $50,000 donation for scholarships and internships to the National Association of Hispanic Journalists bringing the total to $100,000.

Hispanic populations in the United States have higher than average rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other chronic conditions associated with overconsumption of sodas and snacks.

Such generosity raises questions about what Pepsi is buying from this group.

The NAHJ says:

We are thrilled to have PepsiCo as a new partner committed to building a stronger Latino community,” said Ivan Roman, Executive Director for NAHJ. “The company’s support as we get more Hispanics into journalism to tell our stories is key to making sure our communities are represented fairly in the news media, while giving them a louder voice in the civic dialogue.

Why do I think that journalists in this Association are unlikely to be telling stories like these:

  • The relationship of soda and snack consumption to obesity and type 2 diabetes in Hispanic communities
  • The relationship of soda and snack consumption to Hispanic childhood obesity
  • How soda intake among Hispanic children leads to dental decay
  • Soda company marketing practices in Hispanic communities
  • The effects of soda and snack marketing on dietary practices and health in countries in Latin America

Pepsi says:

As part of La Promesa de PepsiCo, the company is building relationships with the community, strengthening its strategic partnerships, and sponsoring national Hispanic organizations like: CHCI (Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute), HACR (Hispanic Association on Corporate Responsibility), LULAC (League of United Latin American Citizens), NAHJ (National Association of Hispanic Journalists), and NCLR (National Council of La Raza) among others.

A page from the tobacco-industry playbook, no?

Jul 25 2012

Yesterday’s hearing on Big Soda ban

I’m out of town but learned about the hearing by e-mail and twitter (thanks to senders), and I’ve read the coverage in Huffington Post,  the Christian Science Monitor, and the Toronto Star.

One picture says it all:

Jul 24 2012

The Bloomberg soda initiative: soda companies fight back, overtly and covertly

The hearing on Bloomberg’s soda volume limit takes place today.  I’m traveling and sorry to miss it (I filed comments).

I shouldn’t be surprised but I am stunned by the intensity and depth of soda industry pushback on this, most of it going on and on about the virtues of personal choice, as if container size has nothing to do with the amount people eat.  It does (see below).

In addition to what reporters have been reporting, here’s what I’ve seen personally:

  • A phony “grassroots”petition campaign paid for by the soda industry with campaigners paid $30 per hour to collect signatures
  • A mailing to my home asking me to protest
  • Handout cards
  • Subway posters
  • Tee shirts
  • And highly visible ads on trucks.

And then there’s yesterday’s op-ed in the Wall Street Journal from Seth Goldman, the “TEA-EO” of Honest Tea:

I challenge the mayor and the New York City Board of Health to seriously consider the impediments that entrepreneurs already face in our efforts to offer lower-calorie drinks. Starting a business and building a challenger brand with modest resources is already a daunting task. The proposed ban would create additional barriers to beverage innovation.

Only one thing wrong with this.  Mr. Goldman must have forgotten to mention that since March 2011, Honest Tea has been a wholly owned subsidiary of Coca-Cola.

Yes, I know the petition has gathered 75,000 signatures or so.  The campaigners and signers should all know better.  See this, for example:

Jul 13 2012

American Beverage Association sponsors conference on obesity in minorities?

I’ve just learned that I’m missing a Focus on Obesity conference in Washington DC today, organized by The Root as part of its Black, Fit & Healthy initiative.

Black Americans have the highest rates of obesity, and a conference devoted to promoting healthy diets in this population seems like a good idea.  This one has an impressive list of speakers.  Sam Kass, Michele Obama’s chef and food policy adviser, is giving the keynote, and many of the speakers are associated with government or private groups devoted to improving the diets, physical activity, and overall health of Black Americans.

The sponsors got my attention.  Two are the Office of Minority Health in the Department of Health and Human Services, and HBO, which produced the Weight of the Nation obesity documentary I discussed a few weeks ago.

But the third is the American Beverage Association (ABA), the trade association for Coke, Pepsi, and other sugary drinks linked to poor diets and overweight among children and adults.

This is the group that so opposes Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed bad on soft drinks larger than 16 ounces.

Not only that, but as documented by the Rudd Center at Yale, ABA members devote special efforts to marketing their products to Black Americans.  Advertising Age notes that the soft drink industry makes no apologies for targeting minorities and considers it “smart marketing.”

The Rudd study’s findings:

  • Soda ads made up 13% of the ads on black prime time shows, compared with 2% of ads on general prime time shows.
  • Soft drinks were 13.5% of ads with non-whites (almost exclusively blacks) compared with 6.2 percent of ads with whites.
  • Exposure to SSB [sugar-sweetened beverage] ads decreased over time at all ages, but the decrease was less for black than white children.
  • As for outdoor advertising, Black and Latino neighborhoods had the most ads for higher calorie/low-nutrient foods, including sugary beverages.

The irony: soft drink companies are sponsoring a conference to solve a health problem that their products helped cause in the first place.

Want to take bets on whether any of the speakers suggests cutting down on sodas or “don’t drink your calories”?

Rumors, as yet unverified, are flying:

  • The American Beverage Association dreamed this conference up as a public relations move to position sodas as a solution to minority obesity, not its cause.
  • Several of the speakers are former employees of, or have ties to, Coca-Cola.
  • The Washington Post will be running a special section on the conference next week, flanked with American Beverage Association advertisements

If this last one is true, please save me a copy.

In the meantime, think about who is likely to derive the greatest benefit from this co-sponsorship alliance: the Office of Minority Health, Black Americans, or corporate members of the American Beverage Association.

Jul 2 2012

Soda taxes and other measures designed to fight obesity

My once-a-month (first Sunday) Q and A column in the San Francisco Chronicle deals with recent city initiatives.

Q:Why do municipalities continue to try to tell us what to eat or drink through taxes (the 1-cent soda tax on the Richmond ballot in November) or outright bans (eliminating super-size soft drinks, proposed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg in New York)?  Richmond residents could just buy their sodas in neighboring towns, and 1 cent seems hardly enough to influence anyone. New Yorkers could just buy two drinks if they want more. Isn’t this all rather silly?

A: Silly? On the contrary. These are dead-serious attempts to address the health problems caused by obesity through “environmental” change – changing the context in which we make food choices.

By now, health officials are well aware that asking individuals to take responsibility for making their own healthy food choices hasn’t got a prayer of success in the face of a marketing environment that encourages people to eat everywhere, all day long, in very large portions and at relatively low cost.

This is the default food environment, where it’s useless to tell people they need to eat less and expect them to do it. They can’t. Instead, it makes sense to try to change the food environment to make healthy choices the easy choices.

Healthy by design?

Suppose, for example, that all kids’ meals at fast-food restaurants were healthy by design and automatically provided milk or water.

You could still order a soda for your kid, but you would have to ask for it – and pay extra. If you are like most people, you won’t bother. That’s why the default matters.

Cities are trying to change the default. One change may or may not make a difference – we don’t know that yet. But changing the default might well make healthy choices easier in schools, fast-food restaurants and other institutions.

Bloomberg’s proposal in New York, to ban sodas larger than 16 ounces, is one such step. From my standpoint, 16 ounces is generous. It’s two full servings and provides about 50 grams of sugars, 200 calories and 10 percent of daily calories for someone who consumes 2,000 calories a day.

Portion sizes used to be a lot smaller. Decades ago, Coca-Cola advertised 16-ounce bottles as “big” and enough to serve three over ice.

If we could recognize that larger portions have more calories – and act on this knowledge – we might have an easier time maintaining weight. But we can’t, at least not easily.

The Richmond soda tax proposal recognizes that more than half of Richmond schoolchildren are overweight or obese. This percentage is higher than in other areas of Contra Costa County.

Even more striking, city officials estimate that two-thirds of Richmond adolescents consume more than 400 calories a day from soft drinks.

Kids who habitually drink sugary sodas tend to have worse diets, to be fatter and to display more risk factors for chronic diseases than kids who don’t.

This makes sugar-sweetened beverages an obvious target for environmental approaches to obesity prevention. Sugary sodas have calories but no nutrients. They are consumed in large amounts. They are highly correlated with obesity and health risks. They are “liquid candy.”

Sugary drinks should be once-in-a-while treats, not daily fare.

Richmond officials hope that the tax will encourage healthier choices. They deliberately set the proposed tax small so it would not unduly burden low-income residents.

One penny per ounce – 16 cents on a 16-ounce soda – may not be enough to change behavior, but it sends a clear message: It’s less expensive to drink water, and it’s healthier to reduce soda intake.

Funding programs

The Richmond proposal has one other critically important feature. It specifies that soda tax revenue will be used to fund city programs to address and reduce childhood obesity, especially in low-income areas where obesity rates are high.

These experiments are worth national attention. They may well do some good for individuals, and I can’t see how they would cause harm in any way except, perhaps, to the economic interests of soda companies.

Soda companies are taking these initiatives seriously. They are pouring millions of dollars into lobbying and community campaigns against both proposals.

Both have elicited plenty of public discussion, much of it focused on the rights of individuals versus the public health interests of government.

What I like about these initiatives is that they do not infringe on individual rights – people can buy as much soda as they want. The proposals simply try to make the default food environment slightly more conducive to healthy choices.

I’m hoping both proposals go forward. I can’t wait to see how they play out.

Page 5 of 13« First...34567...Last »