By now, most of you have heard about Coca-Cola's television commercials publicizing its efforts to combat obesity. The two-minute TV spots, aimed directly at consumers, highlight the beverage company's record of developing, distributing and marketing low- and no-calorie beverage options. The commercials also point out that weight gain results from consuming too many calories in any food or drink, not just soda. It also reminds viewers that "all calories count, no matter where they come from" and that "if you eat and drink more calories than you burn off, you'll gain weight." (Bravo, Coke!)
The campaign is getting underway as New York City prepares to enact a first-in-the-nation cap on the size of soft drinks sold at restaurants, movie theaters and sports arenas in March (see VT, September 2012). Many local governments across the country are also following suit, seeking to impose taxes on sugary beverages.
Dr. Michael Jacobson, founder of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (cspinet.org) -- the activist organization famous for popularizing the term "junk food" -- called the TV campaign "a full-blown exercise in damage control." He contended that, if Coca-Cola really were serious about reducing obesity, it would stop opposing soft drink taxes and restrictions on serving-sizes.
Stuart Kronauge, general manager of sparkling beverages for Coca-Cola North America, explained the campaign as an effort to raise awareness about the company's lower-calorie drinks. He said the obesity problem can only be solved with "honest and collective action" by beverage companies, government, teachers, scientists, health professionals and parents.
On a lighter note, and also making recent industry news, NBC's "Parenthood" comedy-drama series opened its fourth season with young Max, a main character, upset that his school's parent-teacher association removed vending machines from the campus. In the story, Max's mother, worried about her son (who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome, and is upset by changes in his routine), wonders whether there's anything she can do to get the vending machines back in the school. When she learns that Max's fellow students are now purchasing food and drinks from a nearby convenience store, she approaches the PTA about putting the machines back, but with "healthier" options. The school would benefit from the commission paid on sales, an important funding source for athletics and other school programs. At the end of the program, the vending machines are returned.
In my humble opinion, the convincing argument made by Max's mother wasn't primarily about "healthy" vending, but rather stated the fact that those students -- as consumers -- have choices. The Coca-Cola commercial makes the same point: we have options. If students can't purchase a snack or soft drink at a school vending machine, they will just go somewhere else to get it. Max's mother's point: Why not take advantage of the convenience that vending gives the students and teachers, and put to good use the profits those machines generate? And her underlying message was that the location, not the operator, has the final say about what is sold through vending machines.
I'm not saying that obesity is not a problem in the United States, though I do think we need to keep this in perspective. Four decades ago, widespread hunger was the problem, and policies were put into place that encouraged the production of low-cost food. Those policies have been linked by some to today's pervasive obesity. But, again: we all have choices. Variety is an important benefit that free enterprise confers on consumers. Breadth of choice is vital to the future of our business (and everyone else's business, too).
You may recall, a few months back, an outbreak of YouTube videos created by high school students to dramatize their complaint that the new "healthier" school menus are starving them. They got a lot of support. The problem, I think, is that these menus were designed by well-meaning people with very fragmentary information. Horrified by stories about obese youngsters, they've ignored the needs of the kids whose weights are normal and who are normally active. Obesity needs to be dealt with at home, not in the schools.
For what it's worth, I was overweight as a kid, but my parents didn't blame the school lunch program. They encouraged me to pursue gymnastics as an after-school activity, and to play kickball with the other neighborhood kids after dinner. When I was finally on my own, I remember being thrilled to find an apple or a bag of peanuts in the college campus vending machine. But I also loved the ice cream machine in the lobby of our dorm -- especially after a late-night fraternity party. Yes, I gained the "freshman 15" but it wasn't because I was overindulging in sugary drinks from the vending machines.