Big Soda’s Balance Calories Initiative: Rigged Marketing or Public Health Promotion?

Don’t listen to those pesky public health advocates talking about soda warning labels and soda taxes. Big Soda can solve the world’s chronic disease crisis on its own. Sure, its products and marketing have contributed to unprecedented rates of Type 2 diabetes, heart disease and non-alcoholic fatty liver disease, but Big Soda has pledged to reduce the calories consumed in its beverages. Therefore, any action communities take to regulate soda is unnecessary, or worse, downright Nanny Statism.

Or so the American Beverage Association would like you to think. This year, ABA CEO, Susan Neely went on the defensive to ward off a string of soda tax initiatives across the country, from Philadelphia to Cook County, Illinois. Neely failed. This November, every soda tax initiative passed, and dozens more are under consideration. Neely responded by doubling down on the same message, essentially: “We at Big Soda can solve chronic disease by ourselves, so leave us alone.” The ABA ran the following ad in DC this month, featuring Neely:

Neely expanded on these ideas in an op-ed for The Hill this July, titled “Taxes on soda regressive, won’t improve public health.” She put forth that, 

People are best able to achieve and maintain a balanced diet and lifestyle when they are empowered with information to help them make educated decisions. America’s beverage companies are doing their part to give people the tools to do just that. We are providing consumers with more choices, smaller portion sizes and fewer calories than ever before. And these ferocious competitors are putting competition aside and working together on a bold, unprecedented initiative to cut calories and sugar intake in the American diet. The Balance Calories Initiative, supported by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, will have a real and meaningful impact on communities across the nation.

The Balance Calories Initiative and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation sound great. What deviant creature would prefer unbalanced calories or a less healthy generation? Perhaps Big Soda’s commitment to improving public health indeed lives up to its public ideals. Let’s take a closer look. One way to tell is to read what they say in private. Here’s an internal Coca-Cola email unveiled by DC Leaks,

“As anticipated earlier this week, our calorie commitment in the Netherlands is now out and is getting massive media traction locally. It’s a key element in our strategy to fight discriminatory legislation and to improve category perception by taking the lead on innovation, choice, transparency and balanced lifestyles.”

As you can see, Coca-Cola uses calorie-reduction commitments as part of its lobbying and marketing strategies. Publicly committing to cut calories is just another way Big Soda lobbies against regulation and promotes its beverages. This email certainly supports Kyle Pfister’s conclusion that “the soda’s industry scheming has nothing to do with our healthand everything to do with growing their profits.”

Can’t doing good and doing well go together, though? If Big Soda is truly cutting calories and improving public health, should it not get credit for its achievements? The beverage industry has an obvious conflict of interest, but couldn’t it partner with legitimate, unbiased public health organizations to ensure its Balance Calorie Initiative delivers?

It’s a pretty thought. Close examination of the Balance Calories Initiative strongly supports Pfister’s analysis. The initiative’s credibility is only as strong as its partners’ credibility.

You see, the ABA partnered with theAlliance for a Healthier Generation to administer the initiative. The Clinton Foundation and American Heart Association founded the Alliance and still run it to this day. Chelsea Clinton, Clinton Foundation CEO Bryce Lindsey, AHA CEO Nancy Brown, and Wendell Pierce (Bunk from The Wire!) are on the Alliance’s board. 

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The Alliance for a Healthier Generation: brought to you by the Clintons, Bunk, and the American Heart Association.

The Clintons and the American Heart Association enjoy close relationships with Big Soda. As we have covered,

It is public knowledge that Coca-Cola maintains a close relationship with the Clintons. Coca-Cola paid the Clinton Foundation between 5 and 10 million dollars. And Bill Clinton celebrated the Coca-Cola bottle’s 100th birthday on stage with Coke CEO Muhtar Kent at the Clinton library in Arkansas. Coke marketing executive Wendy Clark took a four-month break in early 2015 to help Hillary prepare her presidential campaign.

That’s not to mention Clinton insiders Doug Band, Sara Latham and Capricia Marshall, all of whom have consulted for Coca-Cola. And Coca-Cola emails prove that Coca-Cola expects the Clintons’ cooperation in exchange for its generosity. 

As for the American Heart Association, it has managed to keep its Big Soda partnership less prominent while portraying itself as an anti-soda advocate. Nonetheless, Coca-Cola’s transparency archive reveals over $700,000 in payments from Coke to the AHA since 2010. Coca-Cola has gone missing from the AHA’s own sponsor page, however. 

Also missing from AHA’s sponsorship page is PepsiCo, which has donated around $300,000 to the AHA since 2012. And that’s not to mention the American Beverage Association, the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group, the Hershey Company, McDonald’s, Nestle, Unilever, Cargill, The Sugar Association and Monsanto–all recent members of the AHA’s “Industry Nutrition Advisory Panel.” The AHA justifies its junk food partnerships by claiming they inform it of the “strategic needs” of the industry. Why does a heart association need to consider the corporate strategy of junk food corporations? 

CrossFit CEO Greg Glassman 
sent a letter to the AHA asking it to disavow Big Soda funding on Feb. 9, 2016. Ten days later, AHA President Mark Creager responded. Creager refused to leave soda dollars behind. He insisted,

(The AHA’s) donations and sponsorships do not influence our science or our policy strategies. To the contrary, we are on the forefront of publishing research papers on the impact of added sugars and policy statements on sugary drink taxes that are leveraged in advocacy campaigns across the nation.

Similarly, AHA CEO Nancy Brown appeared to take on Big Soda in her Huffington Post piece, “Dear Big Soda: It’s Time for a Change.” 

Any positive impact the AHA may achieve against soda is counterbalanced by it accepting soda dollars and partnering with the Balance Calories Initiative. The AHA is normalizing the soda industry by accepting its money. Public health advocates argue that Big Soda is the next Big Tobacco. The AHA is countering that idea, perhaps inadvertently. Consider the subliminal messaging: would the American Heart Association really take money from Big Soda if it were as malevolent as Big Tobacco?

AHA claims to oppose Big Soda’s agenda, yet at the same time it is helping the ABA lobby against regulation through the Balance Calories Initiative. As Daniel Aaron and Michael Siegel concluded in their analysis of Big Soda partners, to include the AHA, “health organizations are inadvertently participating in their marketing plans.”

Thus, it is hard to take Big Soda’s Balance Calories Initiative seriously. Big Soda does not have a good track record when it comes to living up to its commitments, whether that means cutting sugar or refraining from advertising to children. As the Wall Street Journal pointed out regarding PepsiCo,

Added sugars rose 4% between 2006 and 2015, compared with the company’s 25% reduction target for 2020.

And how are the compromised American Heart Association and Clinton Foundation going to keep Big Soda honest? The Alliance for a Healthier Generation’s track record is not encouraging either. Take a deal the Alliance struck with McDonald’s. In 2013, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, 

McDonald’s and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation misled the media, CSPI, and families when they stated that the company would not feature, promote, or market soda in connection with Happy Meals.

So, you can see that the American Beverage Association’s Balance Calories Initiative is not a legitimate alternative to regulation as Susan Neely presents it. What about Big Soda’s free market argument against soda regulation, though? 

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Big Soda uses free market rhetoric while lobbying for subsidized profits.

You already pay soda taxes whether you live in Atlanta, Georgia, or Berkeley, California. As a taxpayer, you contribute to the American Beverage Association’s billions in subsidized revenue, even if your local government does not explicitly tax soda. The federal government pays for an estimated $1.7 to $2.1 billion of soda purchases each year through food stamps (consider that a baseline; there are good reasons to assume it’s a severe underestimate). And Big Soda lobbies hard to keep its federally-subsidized revenue coming in.

If Big Soda was truly committed to public health, it would have chosen un-compromised partners to supervise its Balance Calories Initiative. Instead, it partnered with the Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association. If Big Soda was truly committed to the free market, it would have lobbied against food stamp soda purchases. Instead, it lobbies to keep taxpayer dollars coming in. Big Soda will always prefer profits to ethics and public health.

Editor’s Note: The day after we published this article, the initial results for the Balance Calories Commitment were released. It will not surprise our readers that beverage calories consumed per person were only down .2%, “a slower rate of decrease than in earlier years.”

7 comments

  1. I think getting into a word dance with Big Soda and their pals is a waste of time. Arguing about calories is also a waste of time as pointed out by Jason Fung in his book “The Obesity Code”. Sucrose is toxic in any form and it kills more people than cigarettes so it is a waste of time comparing Big Soda to Big Tobacco. Consuming less of a toxic substance with no nutritional value is a waste of time.

    I think it is time to end all of this non-sense and stop wasting time. Big Soda and their friends have to go and the sooner the better.

    • Russ Greene

      Dr. Wilson,

      I’ll end my “word dance” just as soon as Big Soda ends its influencing science and policy dance. This promise may provide you little succor.

      • Russ–My comments were meant to be somewhat satirical. Of course we need to keep beating the drum. I have been doing so likely before you were born! I will not divulge my age but I am old enough to get SS payments and I have a two year old daughter so I do have a dog in this fight.

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