Big Soda and the Campus Health Conspiracy

by Kyle Pfister on September 24, 2015

Artist Henry Hargreaves melts sugar from popular beverages into candy
This week, Michelle Obama’s “Partnership for a Healthier America” announced the expansion of its #HealthyCampus initiative — a collaboration with 38 US colleges (including my alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-Madison) to improve the health of campus environments for students. You may have seen all the proud campus headlines.

The nationwide #HealthyCampus campaign is structured as a voluntary program where each campus is invited to choose 23 of 39 health guidelines and sign a MOU with the Partnership for a Healthier America (PHA).

Sounds great, right? The attention and energy is powerfully needed.

Students guzzle soda at college, we all know that toxic levels of sugar have been hidden in our beverages for years, and it’s abundantly accessible for sale in nearly every campus environment.

In fact, it’s currently the norm for universities to partner with sugar companies to peddle soda — like young adult candy — to student populations. Soda is often the default beverage, sold for cheap, and featured in lifestyle advertising targeted at the college demographic. Yet research shows the college years are a critical window for shaping a lifetime of healthy behaviors.

It’s about time we cut the ties between #BigSoda and our universities in the effort to shape healthy college environment.

So does #HealthyCampus call for ending #BigSoda on campus? Nope.

Instead of taking a stance against soda, the guidelines protect the role of soda within a healthy campus environment. This stance preserves multi-million dollar #BigSoda contracts with colleges and only suggests an optional guideline that unhealthy beverages stay under 40% of sales.

Upon a quick review of the 38 #HealthyCampus commitments listed on the campaign website, only two colleges seem to have chosen to work on this soda guideline. That’s the power of “voluntary” campaigns to self-censor certain interventions. Not to mention that many campuses have already achieved this low beverage standard, as many sugary drinks with health halos sold by the sponsor soda companies (i.e. juices) fall in the 60% “healthy” category.

Sound like an aggressive fight against #BigSoda during an obesity epidemic? Not to me either.

America clearly doesn’t want to decrease soda consumption. If we did, we’d name the issue of excessive soda consumption, raise prices, and decrease accessibility. We know that works.

So why isn’t that the plan?

Industry Partnerships Work. But not as intended.

Unfortunately, the Partnership for a Healthier America — like most health campaigns — is partnered with #BigSoda, via its cleanly named front-group, the “Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation”. PepsiCo’s CEO was the Keynote Speaker at PHA’s annual conference this year, presenting on the “role of industry in supporting healthy lifestyles” and “the value of public-private partnerships when addressing societal challenges.”

#BigSoda involvement means pro-industry messages that emphasize physical activity over nutrition, “flexibility” instead of policy, and the promotion of free consumer “choices” somehow overpower prevention science to craft the official frame for the health campaign.

PHA’s answer to their relationship with #BigSoda front groups.

As #BigSoda industry messaging asserts again and again, “public-private partnerships work”. But not in the positive way they suggest. Partnerships work to preserve company profits and encourage health efforts to implement slower and less effective methods to reduce sugar in our environment. Because what’s the big rush anyway?

Industry partnerships work to keep standards low, implementation slow, profits protected, and blame far from industry causes.

A screenshot of the #HealthCampus initiative focusing on choice and flexibility.

This all begs a larger question: Why do we as a culture seem to work so hard to protect the interests of #BigSoda… whose product has no nutritional value, is linked to tooth decay and fatal disease, and is not recommended for consumption by any Doctor worth his weight in sugar packets?

We don’t have to. And we shouldn’t. We’re actually working against our society’s financial and health interests to do so. #BigSoda’s infiltration into health efforts perpetuates a standard that we have a responsibility to coddle an unhealthy industry’s profits and carve loopholes in prevention efforts big enough for them to wiggle out unharmed.

Our implicit partnership with the soda industry means our society’s institutions — like our colleges — become salespeople, whose role is literally scripted in #BigSoda’s strategic plan for selling more candy water.

But don’t take my word for it.

Campuses sign million dollar exclusive contracts with soda companies to control the price, availability, and advertising of campus beverages. Their use of university marks, mascots, and spokespeople is particularly problematic. There’s no doubt that #BigSoda began buying access to college environments in the late 90s due to decreased Federal and state funding for public for education.

My alma mater, the University of Wisconsin -Madison, has a $1 million, 5-year sponsorship contract with Dr. Pepper

Here is Dr. Pepper’s stated goal of campus sponsorship:

“Sponsorship plays a critical role in connecting with our core consumers through their passion points such as college football or our tuition program. We want partnerships that enable us to build brand equity, drive retail activation and get our products in the hands of consumers.”

For a culture that gets outraged about “big brother” in our lives, we aren’t worried about people strategizing to put strange drinks in our hands? Sounds kinda date rape-y to me.

“The campaign is successful because it takes a one-of-a-kind brand like Dr Pepper and drives an emotional connection with consumers by giving them a voice to showcase their one of a kind personality and how they will change the world.”

Did you see that creepy guy in a van across from school trying to build deep emotional connections with students to sell candy? Maybe we should call the campus police. Oh he’s paying the salaries of the campus police?

Yikes.

Come to find out that the creeper may even be invited, as happened at UW-Madison, to give the commencement speech to new college graduates about the economic benefits of being the spokesman for pumping sugar into kids.

Click here to view the full commencement speech, including his quest for truth and the Provost’s eerie joke about his role in “issues management”.

Can you imagine a Philip Morris marketing representative being invited to share his inspiring story about targeting kids with cigarettes? Actually it sadly still happens (because capitalism), but you get my point.

A healthy campus does not sell soda to its students. Our colleges have an unhealthy relationship with soda companies.

The Can is Half Empty

Colleges have a drinking problem.

Young adults consume more calories from sugary sodas than any age group. So of course #BigSoda wants to be invited to hang out with the cool kids at the football game.

But industry doesn’t just want to be invited, it wants to make the rules too. Yes, #BigSoda continues the corporate tradition of viewing themselves as a responsible partner in helping to prevent the consequences they cause, while still somehow denying liability. Once industry representatives have landed their seat at the table of obesity prevention initiatives like the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, the American Dietetic Association, or the PHA, they assert private sector “free market” solutions as an alternative to the accountability of any sustainable policy solution.

One such private solution — no joke—  is that Dr. Pepper actually funded the college tuition of a dental hygienist. Think he’ll educates his patients not to drink soda for their dental health?

If #BigSoda authentically believes in “free market power” to drive consumers toward healthy beverages, then why do they spend literally billions on marketing their products?

Because advertising works to change minds and behavior, and they know it. The PR they get from health partnerships can actually hide their role in causing social ills, while still selling a product that’s nearly void of value except for ridding people of un-needed limbs.

If you’re looking for a “nanny” who forces you to make beverage choices, I think you’ve found Big Mama on campus.

#BigSoda’s marketing investments have increased, in part, because Americans are beginning to wise up. Soda consumption is decreasing every year. Estimates predict that bottled water could surpass soda in 2017 as America’s go-to beverage.

More water, less soda — sounds great!

So will that put #BigSoda out of business? Nope, we bought them a parachute too. We let them buy our natural water supply, bottle it in plastic bottles, and sell it back to us. Every soda company has a water brand now. Because how will our beloved companies keep make money if no one is drinking soda?

Sound like a scam? It absolutely is. The CEO has no clothes. The Chancellor has no clothes. #BigSoda should not be dictating the terms of the epidemic they helped cause.

The CanIs Half Full

Let’s do something about it.

This article isn’t intended as criticism of campus groups that are participating in #HealthyCampus. These are leaders who must act immediately to promote health and confront obesity. Colleges are known for being on the front lines of authentic activism. This is why #HealthyCampus can be an opportunity to mobilize campuses to free themselves from “strategic partnerships” with candymen. But how?

Here are 6 ways campuses can leverage #HealthyCampus to decrease #BigSoda influence:

1. View PHA standards as a floor, not a recommendation. The #HealthyCampus guidelines are a springboard, use it to boldly go soda-free and only sell healthy beverages across your campus. The University of California — San Francisco did it! Set your goals high enough to challenge the status quo and build a coalition of community members around them.

“As a health sciences university and leading medical center, we see it as our responsibility to do our part to help reduce this impact on our own community.” — UCSF Chancellor Sam Hawgood.

2. Cut soda contracts. Can you authentically say you’re trying to decrease soda consumption if your university is getting paid to do the opposite? If your campus policy is anything like UW-Madison’s, it signs over your campus reputation for use in soda advertising, unhealthy student promotions, and pouring rights. Of course, the contract also makes sure that if its products harm anyone, the campus won’t hold the company responsible. Look for an “opt-out” clause, or next time the contract comes up for renewal, mobilize and make health a part of the decision. We shouldn’t fund college by selling off the long-term health of students.

3. Educate the campus. Use the media attention of #HealthyCampus to conduct campus-wide education of students, faculty, and policymakers about the dangers of sugary drinks and benefits of a tap water swap.

4. Support tax increases on soda. Your effort for a #HealthyCampus lives within the environment of public policy set by your city, country, and state. Become civically engaged and share your story, energy, and successes with local soda tax efforts which recognize the real societal costs of unhealthy beverages and will work to decrease consumption across the entire community.

5. Divorce from industry-funded studies. As stewards of knowledge for our communities, university groups can be leaders in calling out the #BigSoda trend of funding research studies that deliberately obfuscate nutrition science. Add that to your campus action plan!

6. Fund comprehensive obesity prevention efforts. Did you know most state’s don’t allocate any funds for their obesity prevention program at the state public health department? This makes them reliant on Federal funding which continues to get cut. Health efforts without taxpayer funding are vulnerable to relying on industry funding to plan, monitor, and implement proven obesity prevention strategies. It’s an effort worth funding for everybody’s health.

Sound like a good start? What are you doing to limit #BigSoda’s impact on campus? Share your successes with us on Twitter and Instagram.

Kyle Pfister wrote this originally for Ninjas for Health

Filed under: Soda Tax/Food Politics

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