The Clinton Global Initiative is a prestigious and convenient forum for companies to announce commitments to improve their practices, be they related to the environment, human rights, development, health, or any other facet of corporate behavior. This week executives from the big three soda makers, Coca Cola, PepsiCo, and Dr Pepper Snapple Group, along with an official from the American Beverage Association lobbying organization, shared the stage with former President Bill Clinton to make what seemed, at first glance, to be a dramatic announcement: That those companies would commit to selling 20 percent fewer calories per capita in their beverage mix over the next 10 years. There were smiles and handshakes all around and plenty of sunny media coverage.
But some of that media coverage missed an important point. There’s less to that big announcement than meets the eye. Americans have been turning away from non-diet soda in droves. In fact, over the past 10 years, per capita consumption of carbonated sugar drinks has declined by 20 percent — the same as industry’s “lofty” goal for the next 10. Why? Bottled water (much made by Coke and Pepsi) sales have skyrocketed. Federal regulations now prohibit the sale of soda in schools. Millions of people went on the sugar-eschewing Atkins and South Beach diets. Many cities and states are enacting curbs on soda in vending machines and elsewhere on public property; so are hospitals and other venues. And Americans are increasingly recognizing that soda and other sugar drinks are like bombs on their health (think diabetes and heart disease).
The industry sees the writing on the wall. And it’s reacting with a strange combination of panic and prudence. It sees cities, like San Francisco and Berkeley, wanting to tax the industry’s main product, and so it’s spending millions to defeat those measures. (You can bet that the companies hope that the good PR from their new promise will lead to more “no” votes.) It sees state legislators and health advocates calling for warning labels, limits on sugar content, and other policies aimed at preventing soda-related diseases, so the companies have ginned up their lobbying might. The corporate chiefs know better than anyone that their industry is already on track to sell much less soda in the coming years — even if they do absolutely nothing to try to help. So the commitment made at the Clinton Global Initiative is basically memorializing the inevitable.
Still, the pledge necessarily means that the industry will have to make some useful changes around the margins, perhaps putting more marketing muscle behind low- and no-calorie drinks, reducing serving sizes, and so forth. (A secondary industry commitment made at the CGI, to institute calorie labeling on vending machines, will be rendered moot when the calorie-labeling provisions of the Affordable Care Act are fully implemented).
I don’t begrudge the soda executives their photo op with former President Clinton. And I’m actually glad the industry will get some positive recognition for acknowledging that its products contribute to obesity and that things need to change. And kudos to former President Clinton for creatively nudging the industry in the right direction. But if the companies were really serious about reducing Americans’ caloric intake from beverages (and I’m not holding my breath), they would stop reflexively fighting sensible public health measures, such as taxes, warning labels, and limits on sugars in beverages, that would drive down consumption by 75 percent. It would be a huge victory for public health if former President Clinton — or President Obama, for that matter — got behind those policies.
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