by Marion Nestle
Nov 16 2012

Chicago emulates New York’s public health policies? Not quite.

Chicago’s Mayor Rahm Emanuel is not exactly Michael Bloomberg when it comes to public health approaches to obesity and chronic disease prevention.

In October, he announced that he’d gotten Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Dr Pepper Snapple to agree to post calorie information on vending machines in Chicago government buildings (something that they will have to do anyway whenever the FDA ever gets around to issuing final rules for menu labeling).

At the same time, he announced a health competition between Chicago city workers and those in San Antonio with rewards paid by the American Beverage Association through a $5 million gift.  This partnership was widely interpreted as a ploy to stave off the kind of soda tax and cap initiatives proposed by the Bloomberg administration in New York City.

And now, in yet another deal with soda companies, Mayor Emanuel has accepted a $3 million grant from Coca-Cola to pay for a park district program “to fight obesity and diabetes by offering nutrition education as well as exercise classes run by armed forces veterans.”

If the idea of soda companies funding anti-obesity campaigns strikes you as ironic—don’t sodas have something to do with obesity in the first place?— you need to understand Mayor Emanuel’s point of view.

His stated philosophy is that it’s better “to give people personal responsibility and the information necessary to make the right choices about their health than it is to legislate their behavior.”

Maybe so, but when faced with today’s “eat more” food environment, personal responsibility doesn’t stand a chance.

But wait: Isn’t Chicago making an important environmental change?  Its public schools are banning energy drinks.

Well, almost.

The new policy sets nutrition standards for all vending machine food and a la carte items sold in cafeterias and excludes energy drinks—with one exception: Gatorade, a PepsiCo product, “can only be used after students have engaged in a school sports activity.”

Are public health partnerships with soda companies a good idea?  The money is nice and undoubtedly badly needed, but worth the price?  Mayor Emanuel thinks so.

I’m dubious.

  • I guess I’m torn on this one. On one hand, you have a company providing much-needed funds for healthy lifestyle initiatives. On the other hand, said company develops a product that’s a major contributor to the obesity epidemic.

    Seems like a well-crafted marketing ploy to me by Coke, as you alluded to Marion.

  • Alexandra

    I wonder how Mayor Emmanuel feels about other areas of health and legislated behavior? For example, is he for the legalization of marijuana?

  • Elle

    Is it also better “to give people personal responsibility and the information necessary to make the right choices… than it is to legislate their behavior”…When they are driving? When someone craves other people’s property?

  • RahmRahm

    Rahm believes in personal responsibility alright! He believes he is personally responsible for giving Coca-Cola the PR opportunity of a lifetime.

    If he truly believes that Chicagoans need more physical fitness in parks, he should fight for that in city budget negotiations. We are talking about a city with a budget greater than $8 billion (, and he’s busy doing a $3 million funded-by-the-root-cause-of-the-problem photo op. Sure the Obama campaign enlisted him to raise big $$$ for their super PAC, but is kowtowing to purveyors of health-reductive products really what he thinks people the people of Chicago elected him to do?

  • Anthro

    I attended a lecture at the Field Museum in Chicago on Saturday and noted that the cafeteria (a local chain, I believe called The Local Bakery–or something like that) had calories posted on the easel stand menu where you enter the line–don’t know if they are posted on the overhead menu boards further on as I didn’t go in. I can survive two to four hours in a museum without food, unlike the hordes lined up at the self-contained McDonald’s on the lower level!

    There were several cashiers and each had a long line. I didn’t get close enough to see if calories were posted. I should add that one gets to the McDonald’s by passing by several banks of vending machines full of nothing remotely healthy except the $2 water–which I got because the bubbler was located on the wall within two feet of the entrances to the restrooms and I found that a bit unappealing.

    How do the many overweight children I saw in those lines exercise personal responsibility, Rahm? Some of their parents were under 30; they have never lived in a sane food environment themselves. How do they exercise the kind of “personal responsibility” that would have prevented their children’s (and for many, their own) obesity? Where is the public education and massive PSA advertising that might make a dent in the corporate onslaught Rham?

    Oh! Pardon me, I’m just a f***ing retard, according to Rham.

  • Howard G

    1 – Coke and Pepsi don’t just produce soda. They also sell water and many other products. And, there are many people that drink sugary beverages without getting fat – so there is some form of “personal responsibility” and lifestyle choices in the equation. Hey – people drink liquor and drive, putting innocent people at risk but we neither ban driving nor drinking liquor. But we do stop people who have been caught drinking liquor and driving from driving again (at least for some time period). So, perhaps we should ban fat people from purchasing foods that are “known” to cause obesity – b/c for us normal, healthy people, we know how to eat whatever foods we want without getting fat.

    And – the entire obesity epidemic completely lacks the ugly, taboo words of “personal responsibility.” The mere mention of those words boils the blood of many and causes finger pointing to move away from the individual and back to the “environment” and “advertising.” So, if 2/3 of the US are either overweight and obese – how do the other 1/3 (over 100 million people) live in the same neighborhoods as these overweight/obese people and see the same ads but don’t gain weight?? Maybe if we really spoke to the balance of personal responsibility and environmental change – and not put too much burden on one over the other – we may eventually get to a solution.

    And for those poor dumb children on line that don’t know that it’s better to choose the apple over the apple pie – well that’s simply a failure of parenting – which is an entirely different conversation…

    2- You’re damned if you do and your damned if you don’t. So for all those against Coke building a park – you’d rather there be no park at all? Who do you think is going to build and maintain parks? The gov’t? Raising taxes? The same brouhaha erupted when McD’s started putting jungle gyms in their restaurants…

  • But Howard, your analogy is problematic–Liquor isn’t allowed to be marketed to children because we know that drinking young causes worse health issues and harder addiction. And children can’t buy it. We also don’t have a food environment that strongly encourages the consumption of liquor throughout the day–an inclined person needs to put themselves in that environment such as a party or a bar.

  • Howard G

    Oh, Michelle. Where do you live? Liquor is ubiquitous in our society. Every magazine ad, billboards, tv – it’s everywhere! My analogy isn’t flawed b/c kids don’t drive! Kids also are not allowed to work (the youngest is 14 and it is only for paper delivery -if that even exists anymore). So, how do they buy “junk” food? From money they get from their parents. So, parents allow this to go on? See – there is a high need for ‘personal’ (or parental in the case of kids) responsibility in this equation. Again – it’s a balance between personal responsibility and environmental change. It can’t be done without both and we need to stop making PERSONAL RESPONSIBILITY (or the ability to STOP EATING AND MOVE MORE) such a taboo in this convo. Me and the other 100 million people in this country should not have to pay more for certain foods or be denied access to foods in certain quantities because others don’t know what personal responsibility means.

  • Anthro

    Oh Howard, you are so badly informed about public health–which is the government’s responsibility.

    Any parent under age 30 has him or herself now been raised in a culture of food abundance and incessant advertising. Most of them think salad (if they eat it at all) comes in a bag and that dinner cannot be prepared without a microwave.

    Parents and kids are subject to advertising, which is based on psychology that the industry spend millions to acquire, as well as peer pressure. Having something to eat everywhere they go is now considered “normal” for children. Our whole culture is obsessed with eating any time, any place, whatever we “want” at that moment.

    Anyone who remains thin amid all this probably has some very coveted genes that allow him/her to metabolize fat and sugar better than most of the population. Some of us have learned over the years to be very very careful about what we eat in order to control our weight, but you can hardly condemn most of society for being the good little consumers they have been trained to be.

    And do please stop SHOUTING. You are an example of exactly one and you need to look at the bigger picture and have a bit more compassion for children who (for whatever reason) are being made obese by poor diet.

  • Howard G

    Oh Anthro. There is no magic pill nor “very coveted genes” that keeps the thin people thin. It’s eating well, exercising, self control and personal responsibility. Again. I DO (apologize for “shouting” but it’s the New York in me and there is no way to underline or bold in this text box) think the environment needs to change. I’ve stated that. My point is that we must also put blame on one’s personal responsibility and self control – not matter what the age. We cannot make these things become taboo. The gov’t is informing the public about “public health.” They do it every 5 years when they update the Dietary Guidelines. They have endless resources and information available for individuals to read and make informed decisions about their personal diet and exercise regimes.

  • Chris L

    Don’t we make a personal choice when we elect someone? Does being elected mean you stop representing people, and start representing big companies?

  • Sarah M

    Coca Cola and all the other mega-corporations are just trying to save face with these campaigns if you ask me. People are slowly beginning to catch on that these companies are part of the reason 2/3 of this country is overweight. By backing a $3 million nutrition campaign, they are trying to show the public “they care”. If you really cared about the health of your customers instead of making money they’d take the products off of the shelves.

    It’s nice that Mayor Emanuel wants to give people “personal responsibility”, but that has proven not to work. The country needs legislation change if we want to see a healthier population. It is unfortunate, but it is the truth.