Big Soda Winning Battles; Losing War

October 13, 2015 in Food Economics, Foodland Chronicles, Health, Weight Management by Joyce Bunderson

Last week I wrote about how some health associations are ending their association with Big Soda and concurrently their cash cow of ‘Big Bucks.’ Big Soda continues to be in the news. I guess if your pay depended on those Big Bucks, it may seem to be sad news. But for those of us who pay the cost in bad health and high medical, tax, and insurance bills; also, those of us in public health, it’s quite joyous news. The New York Times’ (NYT) headline on October 2, 2015 truly caught my attention; The Decline of ‘Big Soda;’ The drop in soda consumption represents the single largest change in the American diet in the last decade.

For those of us in the public health sector, it’s been distressing to see states and cities across the nation fail, again and again, to tax sodas. I never felt strongly that it would succeed in actually decreasing intake, but I know that some felt that it could make an impact on soda sales. The soda companies and their lobbyist have won most of those battles. With the exception of Berkeley, California, the soda industry won, repeatedly won, the battles over the taxation of soda. The exciting surprise outcome is however, that they’re losing the war.

In the process of trying to pass the failed legislation, the anti-obesity campaigners have accomplished something much greater – the debate over the soda tax reminded people that soda is not a healthy product. They essentially helped Americans think about soda differently. One city, Philadelphia, ran radio and television ads “encouraging parents to think twice about serving sugary drinks to their children.”

I’m not too worried for soda companies despite the fact that full-calorie soda has fallen by more than 25 percent in the last 20 years. The companies have turned to bottled water, flavored bottled waters (with and without cheap added vitamins), bottled iced teas, and sports drinks, to name a few categories. In addition, they’ve turned to overseas sales to buoy their stock performance. Actually, Big Soda even admits that bottled water is saving their hide. Some in the soda industry are projecting that bottled water will overtake soda as the largest beverage category within the next two years.

As a part of the entire Soda category, diet sodas are also experiencing a sharp decline in sales. The NYT article reported that an analyst at JPMorgan described the situation as a crisis. There’s nothing altruistic going on here. This is the bottom line that has been so often written about in this blog. It’s about dollars and cents, not about quality of life or health.

One of Big Soda’s real concerns is that they worry that the public attitudes about soda and consumer tastes may be permanent. Their research shows is that beverage preferences are set in adolescence and the declines in soda drinking appear to be sharpest among young Americans. If they grow up without carbonated soft drinks, the chance that they’re going to start drinking soda as an adult is very low. Big Soda admits, “Obesity concerns may reduce demand for some of our products.” Big Soda is trying to control for this loss in market share on many different fronts. One is that they are offering an expanded number of products. Coca-Cola, for one, has increased its product offering from 400 in 2004 to 700 this year.

If you read the NYT article, you will read about how the soda companies and its distributors are still using the argument that it is unjustified to blame overweight on sugar-sweetened beverages, but not on ice cream, cake, and “everything else.” Yes, sugar (in all its forms) is in many products, but soda slipped into a niche that replaced water; ice cream and other foods never did that. People drink frequently during the day, and many got into the habit of quenching thirst with sugar-enhanced beverages. The fact that people are getting sugar in other forms does not negate the impact of soda. It’s an illogical argument that has been used, and used and over-used. Deny that research on sugary drinks is valid, deny it some more and don’t stop denying it; that’s the playbook that has been used ever since the tobacco industry perfected it over so many years. Almost certainly we will need to continue the education in the direction of the other products that contain sugar, but the fact is that the change in those especially insidious sugary drinks in already in progress – the time when it was fine for children to drink soda all day long is passing.

There’s something great about this past decade as related to health. That great thing is that soda consumption and thus sugar intake is decreasing. That’s just plain good news when looking at the public’s health. Every so often there’s a surprise outcome from the efforts of public health educators and activists. The decline in soda consumption is one happy surprise.