Wednesday, October 7, 2009

No Really, Coke is Good For You, Trust Me

I just read this commentary from Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent that is so incredibly duplicitous, I really cannot believe that even the Wall Street Journal would publish it without significant editing. Let me tell you the punchline upfront: shockingly the CEO of Coca-Cola Corp. does not believe that a tax on sugary drinks will help curb obesity (now you'll understand why the Wall Street Journal published it). Basically his argument boils down to...well it doesn't quite boil down to anything, so let me summarize: Coke has lots of calories, but so do lots of other things. People need to exercise more. And, oh yeah, I employ lots of people.


To support this rambling, Mr. Kent has a great deal of evidence and insight into why Coke is not responsible for Americans becoming obese. For instance, he first pulls out the favorite claim of the American Beverage Association and the National Restaurant Association, Coke doesn't make people fat — people make people fat:


If we're genuinely interested in curbing obesity, we need to take a hard look in the mirror and acknowledge that it's not just about calories in. It's also about calories out.

Let's see, calories in > calories out = weight gain. True fact. Now, there are two ways that one could mess with that statement: 1) increase calories out, or 2) decrease calories in. But why drop your calories in when you could have it all just by exercising more! In case that didn't persuade you, Mr. Kent moves on to playing the victim:


Our industry has become an easy target in this debate. Sugar-sweetened beverages have been singled out for demonization in spite of the fact that soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks and sweetened bottled water combined contribute 5.5% of the calories in the average American diet, according to the National Cancer Institute. It's difficult to understand why the beverages we and others provide are being targeted as the primary cause of weight gain when 94.5% of caloric intake comes from other foods and beverages.

Hmmm... Can't imagine why you would be singled out. Americans get one in twenty of our calories from soft drinks, which — as it clearly states on Coke products — are "Not a significant source of calories from fat, saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol, dietary fiber, vitamin A, vitamin C, calcium and iron." Which leads Mr. Kent to his next argument (confused yet):


Research from the United States Department of Agriculture shows that added sugars, as a percentage of total daily available calories, have declined 11% since 1970. Yet the percent of calories from added fats and flour/cereal products has increased 35% and 13%, respectively, during that same time period.

That's right — the 5.5% of absolutely empty calories that you get from his products are MUCH better than the fat and carb calories you get from eating other foods. I wonder what the Snack Food Association and International Foodservice Manufacturer's Assocation thought when reading this and whether they are going to start a round-robin blame game. "It's cereals making kids fat!" "No, it's Twinkies!" No, it's soft drinks." Finally, Mr. Kent pulls out the trump card:


Policy makers should stop spending their valuable time demonizing an industry that directly employs more than 220,000 people in the U.S., and through supporting industries, an additional three million.

That's right — don't tax us or you'll lose your job (I'm sure Dave will especially love that one).


There's more I could pillory in the commentary. It is actually quite a feat to put so much unrelated garbage in a mere 724 words that he should be awarded some prize just for that. I'm not sure that a soda tax will work to curb obesity and I think that it is actually a pretty crappy policy. Sodas are not cigarettes; no one is going to be upset if you are drinking caramel coloring, carbonated water, and sugar next to them the same way that there was social pressure to stop smoking. If we are going to invest in obesity prevention, it would be a lot smarter to make physical activity a priority by ensuring access to safe neighborhoods with amenities for kids to be able to play. It would mean reducing the work week so that parents can have time to spend with their kids supervising them and being able to go to grocery store and prepare dinner rather than buy it pre-made. But, of course, that would require investment of government dollars and increasing taxes, which you know Mr. Kent would be opposed to no matter what.

2 comments:

Jay Livingston said...

Mike, I think that cigarette sales decrease when the price goes up, even in the short run (maybe especially in the short run), i.e, even when social acceptability remains constant. Sugar-water should see the same effect. Yes, it doesn't have the social acceptability problem. On the other hand, sugar doesn't have addictive properties making demand less elastic.

Mike3550 said...

Jay, sorry for not responding earlier. I think that increasing cigarette taxes did help contribute to decreases in cigarette use. But, the link between cigarettes as the primary cause of lung cancer. If the goal of the nominal goal of the policy is to reduce obesity, then I am afraid that when obesity decreases only slightly because sodas are only 5% of the problem (actually probably more because some number of calories are probably valuable). If the results are not strong, the Kents of the world are going to declare victory, as is happening now regarding the fast-food ban in South L.A. -- although that is even a little bit more of a distal cause. I worry that we are going to be worse off after than because its effect will be to discredit all obesity-reducing policies (btw, I think that I overstated what I thought about the policy -- it's not "crappy," as I said, but I just worry about the ineffectiveness on obesity specifically).

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