As the biggest beverage company in the world, Coca Cola has exercised its power in recent years to burnish its image by doing good things. A few years ago, for instance, it launched a responsibility campaign that promised to allay concerns about the company's giant environmental footprint with investments in new trucks, new vending machines, and "water neutrality" in places where it operates.
But until now, it hasn't responded much to criticisms that strike at the root of its famous product: its sodas are making America fat. Mayor Michael Bloomberg's measure to restrict sodas from being sold in jumbo sizes, which goes into effect in March--and efforts around the country to impose taxes on sugary drinks, or remove sodas from schools--have landed Coca Cola in the general company of the tobacco and gun industry. And like those industries, Coke is fighting back against "sugar control" with a pair of saccharine TV ads that feature happy, beautiful and non-obese people drinking their beverages, and the message that by "working together," America can fight obesity.
The first one, above, aired yesterday, and its aimed at policy makers; the other, aimed at consumers, will premiere tomorrow during American Idol. Both point out that only exercise can cut help people cut calories, and the latter will offer some suggestions--waling the dog for 25 minutes, victory dances, even laughing. And they both seek to demonstrate how much the company has done to reduce serving sizes, list calories, or cull sugary offerings from school vending machines. These efforts have reduced the amount of calories its customers are drinking by "about 22%" and done the same for school children by 60%.
Data released by the government in October seem to bear this out: people are drinking more diet drinks--calorie-free and low-calorie versions of soda, fruit drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks and carbonated water--than they ever have. Between 2000 and 2010, women's consumption rose from 18% to 21%; men's consumption rose from 14% to 19% over the same period. Meanwhile, American consumption of sugar from regular soda has dropped from roughly 150 calories a day in 2000 to 91 calories a day in 2008.
But only 20% of Americans drink diet beverages on any given day, and these beverages supply more calories to American bodies than anything else--cookies, cake, pizza, and so on. Currently roughly two-thirds of adults and a third of children in the U.S. are overweight or obese.
"The Coca-Cola Company still remains one of the major causes of obesity in the USA and globally," Barry Popkin, a nutrition professor at the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill told USA Today. "Yes, other foods matter, but the biggest single source contributor to child and adult obesity in the USA is sugar-sweetened beverages."
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All the big beverage companies are diversifying their offerings, and working to concoct new beverages that, for instance, combine corn syrup and artificial sweetener to produce lower calorie drinks that still appeal to sweet teeth. There are still some health concerns around diet soda; studies have shown that it can cause kidney damage and bone loss. Last week, Austin reported on research that found that people who drink diet drinks have a higher incidence of depression.
One easy solution to obesity that Coca Cola is not likely to try: raising the price of non-diet sodas to discourage their consumption. “Instead of spending millions on a P.R. campaign that will do nothing to combat obesity, diabetes and tooth decay," Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, told the Times, "they would reap profits and change the beverage consumption of Americans in a big and beneficial way.” That would be refreshing.