Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Coca Cola Refreshingly Embraces Obesity

Yesterday, the big news was that Coca Cola has decided to embrace their responsibility on the issue of obesity.

This is clearly a smart business move for a company that is being widely accused of being a big part of the problem.

While pundits may argue about exactly how big a problem Coca Cola actually is (e.g. vs. snack foods, sugary cereals, chocolate, ridiculous portion sizes, or alcohol – not to mention computers, omnipresent computing devices, automobiles, and countless other factors that contribute to our “Western” lifestyles), there is no doubt that sugar sweetened beverages (like juices) can contribute a significant proportion of calories to some people’s diets.

No one, not even Coca Cola, denies this!

It is therefore indeed “refreshing” to see Coca Cola step forward and acknowledge their responsibility – which, they have now done with considerable media fanfare (both positive and negative).

Of course, the “spin” in the video ensures that these efforts are presented in the best possible light. As they point out:

-About one third of their products are now available as low- or no-calorie options.

-Most products are available in smaller package sizes.

-The actual total caloric content is now clearly visible on the front of the package (instead of being hidden in unreadable nutrition labels).

But no one, for a moment believes, that any of this would have happened without “social pressure” from their critics. I am also certain that all of this is motivated in part to pre-empt any moves to further regulate and police this company or its products. Thus, this campaign is sure to make good business sense and is probably fully supported by its shareholders.

Indeed, there are many public health advocates, who suggest that companies like Coca Cola should be forced to pay a “health tax”, which, although not markedly reducing Coca Cola consumption (only a very heavy tax would do that), would at least provide governments with a revenue stream that they can (hopefully) put towards obesity prevention and treatment.

I do not see why such a “health tax” needs to go to the government (only to likely disappear into their bottomless coffers).

Why not have Coca Cola “voluntarily” pay such a “tax” directly to one or more organisations that are already working in that space and can likely put that money to immediate good use (without creating another cumbersome and unwieldy government bureaucracy)?

Not only would this make good business sense for Coca Cola (in terms of further “health-washing” their brand), but it would certainly ensure that such monies are indeed spent directly on the problem at hand.

It is perhaps time to kick off a “virtuous cycle” that may in the end benefit everyone:

Coca Cola pours a few million $$ into an organisation that educates Canadians on the importance of watching their calories, thereby getting Canadians to increase their demand for low- and no-calorie beverages, which Coca Cola can then happily sell more off, thereby making even more money, part of which they can plough back into the organisation that educates even more Canadians…..you get the picture.

Anyone, who thinks that this would be the same as a tobacco company supporting an organisation to promote cessation of tobacco use is WRONG. As there is no healthy alternative to tobacco – that relationship can only end with the tobacco company going out of business.

Fortunately, in the case of Coca Cola, it does make a healthy profit from its low- and no-caloric alternatives – in the end, I don’t think its shareholders would really care whether Coca Cola makes its money from Coke Classic or Coke Zero – as long it can continue to make money selling Coke.

This is why I can actually see a win-win for a Coca Cola-Obesity NGO partnership, that would simply not exist for a Tobacco-Anti-Tobacco NGO.

But why stop at Coca Cola?

A similar formula could well work for any beverage or food company – all of these companies also make “healthy” (or at least “less unhealthy”) choices – which they cannot sell as much of, simply because consumers don’t want to buy them.

Here again, an obesity NGO, by addressing the ‘root causes’ of obesity, can work towards helping create a greater demand and willingness to pay for healthier products – thereby allowing these companies to sell more of these products – in the end, hopefully, making even more money for their shareholders.

Fortunately, Canada has an obesity NGO that is happy to take on the task of educating and working with professionals and consumers to prevent and better manage obesity.

Perhaps it is time for us to help Coca Cola sell even more low and no-calorie beverages to those Canadians who simply will not drink tap water.

AMS
Edmonton, AB

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11 Responses to “Coca Cola Refreshingly Embraces Obesity”

  1. DebraSY says:

    Whoa, Dr. S, you are in dangerous territory. If it were simply about calories in/calories out and Eat Less Move More, then corporate sponsorship would be a simple relationship, but as you well know it’s much more than that, and the unknowns could create problems, especially as processed food donors multiply on your donor list.

    Any number of the vast array of ingredients in processed foods may well be found to be obesogenic or to cause endocrine disruptions with other serious medical consequences besides obesity, and then you’re at a crossroads. Do you betray your funders? While you feel your answer to that question has integrity, what about all your fellow board members? Moreover, how will others, outsiders, view the research of scientists associated with CON-RCO if the organization is signficantly funded by processed food corporations. Will the research have the appearance of being tainted or limited because of these potentially compromising corporate relationships?

    Before you tie CON-RCO’s good name to corporate sponsors, I hope you address how you’ll prevent the appearance of being for sale. I don’t think the USA’s Let’s Move campaign gave that serious thought, and hence it’s considered a lovely but insignificant organization. It’s not known for producing or promoting serious science; it’s just Michelle Obama’s little pasttime — a marketing tool. How might you avoid that? If you go there, seek corporate sponships, you probably want to structure these relationships CAREFULLY. Make it clear from the beginning that research is evolving and at any time the relationship may be terminated.

  2. Arya M. Sharma, MD says:

    Oh yeah DebraSy, I fully recognize how “dangerous” this teritorry is and how a sliding slope of fiscal dependency can affect the credibility and thus the ultimate effectiveness of an organsiation like CON.

    On the other hand, much depends on what is actually done with the money. Michelle Obama’s efforts have so little impact because they have not gone beyond the simplistic eat-less move-more mantras.

    Obama’s efforts are not funding obesity research. They are not supporting obesity NGOs (like for e.g. The Obesity Society). They are not engaging the national obesity experts (they’d rather go with celebrity chefs). They are not educating health professionals. They are not addressing weight bias and stigma. They are not pointing out the complexity of obesity. They are not promoting a better understand of the close link between mental health and obesity. I could go on and on…

    CON does not pretend that photo-ops on the White House lawns are the solution to obesity. It will not suggest that physical activity is all it takes to burn off those extra calories. It will foster the broad societal discussion about culture and values and promote the ublic understanding of the real science of obesity. It will fight weight bias and discrimination and stand up for those who are already struggling with the problem.

    An Organisation like CON has its clear strategic objectives – it has an independent board of directors – it has a membership base of everyone and anyone who understands and has any knowledge and expertise in this area. That is a very different animal than a Let’s Move.

    For an organisation like CON to be of any use to a Coca Cola, it would need to maintain its independence and credibility – it is therefore in the “sponsors” best interest to step back and let the organisation do its work – an organisation that “sells out” to its sponsors will lose its value – even to Coca Cola.

  3. DebraSY says:

    I wish you well. I think your final paragraph may be giving Coca Cola too much credit. I’ll be interested to hear what Yoni says. Hmmm.

  4. Suzie Pellerin says:

    Dear Arya,
    You know how I appreciate you but this comment today disappointed me. Since you acknowledge that “there is no doubt that sugar sweetened beverages can contribute a significant proportion of calories to some people’s diets” and that “any of this would have happened without “social pressure” from their critics”, why CON doesn’t join its voice to numerous other organizations to ask for more regulations for this industry (like banning food marketing to children, special taxation (a mandatory one, not some kind of sponsorship), prohibition of the sale of these products in public places frequented by young people, etc.) instead of protecting the industry?

    We agree with DebraSY. We don’t see how a company will fund a NGO that may say bad things about its products…

    Diet drinks are not necessarily a healthy choice. And why young people would not drink water? These videos show the opposite
    http://www.whysodasucks.com

  5. Arya M. Sharma, MD says:

    Yes Suzie, why people would not just drink tap water is anyone’s guess. We spend billions of $$ on ensuring that the water coming out of our taps is pure enough to drink and then all we use it for is to flush our toilets and wash our cars – go figure! I grew up on tap water (and that was in India). So yes, I fully see your point. Now back to reality….that’s where we need to get the work done – this will be a great discussion to have as we move forward.

    As an aside, CON does not take “positions” on obesity policies as doing so would make it an “advocacy group” rather than a “network”. CON has always been more about fostering constructive dialogue among all relevant stakeholders. With over 8,500 members, there is probably a wide range of opinions amongst CON’s members on almost any topic (some based on evidence, some perhaps based more on ideologies and beliefs) – that is perfectly fine – CON has to be an organisation in which all opinions and interests are heard and respected. Excluding anyone feom this dialogue would diminish rather than strengthen the impact of CON (assuming of course that CON can somehow find the money to continue existing, without which, this whole discussion may be moot).

  6. Kris Nelson OT says:

    “Anyone, who thinks that this would be the same as a tobacco company supporting an organisation to promote cessation of tobacco use is WRONG. As there is no healthy alternative to tobacco – that relationship can only end with the tobacco company going out of business.”

    Tobacco companies (see Phillip Morris) do fund smoking cessation programs and it does not affect their bottom line nor put the company out of business.

  7. Sean Wharton says:

    Great blog Arya. This news is a great way to start of 2013. It is time for these companies to take responsibility and we can assist them to get the correct message out. Working with food industry can lead to some positive aspects for the field of bariatric medicine. I think it would be beneficial to have some guidelines in place, as these relationships can be abused. I do not see Coca-Cola ever going out of business, but just altering business for the better, vitamin water, lower calorie drinks and the occasional coke on New Years will work out just fine. Arya, I am glad to see the positive spin on this and I see that Yoni is taking a similar position.

  8. Wataah says:

    The facts don’t lie. One third of teenagers drink at least three cans of soda a day w/ each can of 12 oz. soda containing 10 teaspoons of sugar. That said, we pledge to continue our efforts and encourage the obesity conversation… http://bit.ly/obesityissue

  9. Nicole says:

    It would be great to see some dialogue on the other ingredients besides sugar in these drinks that are not “whole and natural” and what health issues these may be causing besides obesity in children.

  10. Shandy Reed says:

    Hi Arya,

    I think your suggestion that CON should/could accept funding from big food, such as a company like Coke, requires a sober second thought. Assuming CON hasn’t already accepted coke funding (and if CON has, I would hope that all of it’s members were actively consulted first), industry funding can create real or perceived mission drift and reduce the credibility of both the organization and it’s ‘members’. One need only look at this story about ‘collaborations between groups of citizens and industry’ to consider the risks and impact. From my perspective, there is nothing ‘refreshing’ about this kind of conflict of interest http://www.corporatecrimereporter.com/news/200/naacphispaniccocacolaties01232013/

  11. Arya M. Sharma, MD says:

    HI Shandy,

    Thanks for your comment, which I very much appreciate.

    I can’t speak on behalf of all of CON or its members (I agree CON perhaps needs a better way of engaging and empowering its members), but I personally think that Coke and other food companies should be engaging in this discussion.

    Personally, I tend to submit to the Bad Cop/Good Cop approach to dealing with industry. While I fully understand and support organisations and members, who take a more radical and confrontational stance – I also see the value of an NGO directly engaging with industry (be this pharma, food, fitness, weight-loss, energy, insurance, etc.), especially at an event like the obesity summit.

    In the end, success has to be measured by the impacts and outcomes of moving the needle towards improving the food supply and environment – goals, which I believe we all share.

    I sincerely believe that everyone has a part to play in this – governments, NGO’s and Industry. Personally, I would consider CON a failure if it did not succeed in bringing these groups together, which brings me to the issue of funding.

    For example, I am absolutely delighted that all of these groups (government, NGOs’ and industry) will indeed be well-represented at the CON Summit and will all have the opportunity to argue and discuss their respective perspectives and roles (I am not expecting that they will agree – rather I hope that they will vehemently disagree and passionately argue their cases in front of a large audience (e.g I am already very much looking forward to the session in which Yoni will take on both the government AND Big Food!).

    In my opinion, all CON can do is level the playing field by charging industry far more to participate in this meeting than Government or NGO’s (which is why NGO’s are being offered vastly reduced rates (or in some cases, even free) booth space, which of course is only possible because Industry pays more).

    Thus, hopefully, the summit will create a vibrant event where all viewpoints and interests can be argued and debated by all CON members, who attend. Again, in my personal opinion, I would consider the Summit a complete waste of time if it was simply a ‘Love Fest’ of like-minded groups coming together to pat each other on their backs and jointly point fingers (there are enough other opportunities for that).

    Personally, when it comes to NGO-corporate partnerships, I tend towards examples like the WWF, the Heart and Stroke Foundation, the Canadian Diabetes Association, the Breast Cancer Foundation, and countless other NGO’s, which, despite accepting millions of dollars from corporations, continue to do good work (not that I agree with all of their approaches or policies).

    As for CON, I believe that the Network is fortunate to have a Board of Directors, representing a wide range of expertise and interest (government, academia, NGO, industry, public) with a range of opinions as diverse as CON’s membership.

    I think in the end we all share the same goals – clean up the food supply and create better built and social environments that will make healthy choices the easy (or perhaps even the only) choice.

    As long as we can all agree on this goal – we can hopefully move forward.

    p.s. with regard to corporate-industry partnerships, I recommend the many excellent case studies on the World Wildlife Fund (http://worldwildlife.org/partnerships), which has harnessed extensive corporate partnerships to effectively address sustainable farming, reducing green-house emission, tackling deforestation, preventing overfishing, and promoting freshwater conservation (including helping Coke achieve its (‘voluntary’) environmental goal of becoming the first water-neutral beverage company in the world). In my humble opinion, the WWF has quietly achieved far more for global environmental causes than the more confrontational organisations (which seem to be far more effective in producing public outcries than in coming up with feasible alternatives) can ever hope to achieve.

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