Soda Tax Myths: Does Big Soda Support Free Choice?

by Dana Woldow on March 31, 2014

Soda Tax

Big Soda loves to proclaim that any government regulation of sugary drinks would take away consumers’ “right to choose” the beverages that are best for themselves and their families. Soft drink companies position themselves as defenders of “free choice”, but with Coca Cola alone spending over $3 billion to advertise its products in 2012 (and $11 billion on marketing), are consumers really making a “free” choice, or are they being persuaded to drink sugar-sweetened beverages by a relentless barrage of industry-sponsored propaganda?

“If there’s one thing Big Soda understands, it’s that advertising works” says Businessweek.

Soda companies, virtually all of which also sell non carbonated soft drinks, care far more about aggressive marketing of their products to consumers than they do about maintaining anyone’s right to “free choice”.

Free choice or informed choice?

To see what Big Soda’s real priorities are, just look at what they tell their stockholders. For example, in the Coca Cola Company’s Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) Form 10-K filing for the fiscal year ended December 31, 2012, you can find 90 references to “marketing” but just 9 to “choice”. Most mentions of “choice” refer to the company’s large variety of products, such as “consumers want more choices” or “we are continuing to expand the variety of choices we provide.”

But tucked away in the “challenges and risks” section of the filing (on page 34), where the SEC requires companies to warn their stockholders of any issues that may negatively affect share prices, the subject of “obesity and inactive lifestyles” is noted as a potential trouble spot.

“Increasing concern among consumers, public health professionals and government agencies of the potential health problems associated with obesity and inactive lifestyles represents a significant challenge to our industry. We recognize that obesity is a complex public health problem and are committed to being a part of the solution. This commitment is reflected through our broad portfolio, with a beverage to suit every caloric and hydration need…We believe in the importance and power of “informed choice.”

Big Soda is teaching the teachers

Perhaps by “informed choice”, the Coca Cola Company means “choices informed by advice from a dietitian who has taken one of the continuing education seminars we offer for free online.” As AP reporter Candice Choi explained in an article in February 2014:

“Snack and soda makers that often are blamed for fueling the nation’s obesity rates also play a role in educating the dietitians who advise Americans on healthy eating.

“Frito-Lay, Kellogg, Coca-Cola and others are essentially teaching the teachers. Their workshops and online classes for the nation’s dietitians are part of a behind-the-scenes effort to burnish the images of their snacks and drinks….

“Coca-Cola, which makes drinks including Dasani water and Minute Maid juice, offers about a dozen seminars each year through its Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness. On average, Coke said the live, hour-long classes get more than 5,000 participants. It plans to increase the number of webinars it offers each year.”

Choi described an online class taught by Coke called “Understanding Dietary Sugars and Health”; both instructors had ties to the sugar industry. “At one point during the online class, one instructor said he doesn’t think there should be dietary guidelines regarding sugar intake,” reported Choi, who noted that this position flies in the face of advice from respected organizations like the American Heart Association.

Consumers empowered by information

More proof that by “informed choice”, the Coca Cola Company means “informed by OUR advertising and marketing” lies further along in the challenges and risks section of the SEC filing, where shareholders are cautioned, “We are impacted by shifting consumer demographics and needs…and consumers who are empowered with more information than ever.”

It’s easy to see why consumers being “empowered with more information than ever” would be a real problem for Big Soda if that information is coming from the wrong source – you know, like from public health officials or impartial research scientists, rather than from Big Soda’s “trained” dietitians, “science officers“, PR flacks and advertising gurus, or from industry-funded studies that, to the surprise of no one, rarely show any findings unfavorable to the soft drink industry.

Independent scientific research increasingly links sweetened beverage consumption with poor health outcomes like diabetes, heart disease, kidney disease, metabolic syndrome, obesity, and tooth decay. For companies that have dedicated so much effort to trying to position soft drinks as a “healthy part” of any diet, consumers being “empowered” with this kind of information is a veritable catastrophe that can lead to class action lawsuits, like this one reported by Courthouse News Service, accusing Coca Cola of misleading customers by “falsely claiming that Coke contains no artificial flavors and is part of a kid’s healthy diet.”

Some of Big Soda’s spin is so transparently deceptive that even kids are successfully challenging it, through videos, essays and research. As one California teen wrote, “Since teens are the largest consumer demographic these companies are targeting, then it’s time to use that power — the power to make different buying and drinking decisions, while sending a message to beverage corporations that these aren’t the products we want. We’ll drink water and healthy drinks, instead.”

Big Soda trying to change the conversation

As Don Draper, the fictional advertising genius of TV show “Mad Men”, advises his clients, “If you don’t like what’s being said, change the conversation.” Big Soda doesn’t like the “soda hurts the public health” conversation, so, following in the footsteps of the tobacco industry, they are trying to change the topic from health to “free choice.”

It seems odd, though, that Coca Cola’s stockholder-targeted SEC filing makes no mention at all of the company’s supposed belief in or support for “free choice”; after all, it is “free choice” that the American Beverage Association, Big Soda’s mouthpiece organization, insists government regulations will eliminate. In fact, it is not “free” choice that Coke is worried about preserving, but rather that euphemistically phrased “informed” choice that they say they believe in and support.

In other words, the only interest Coca Cola takes in “choice” is to make sure that consumers continue to “choose” Coca Cola products, and they are willing to spend whatever it takes – be it $3 billion for advertising, $11 billion for marketing, or $24 billion in stock compensation for top managers – to make sure that happens.

So the next time you hear about how imposing a soda tax would take away your “right to choose” what beverages to drink, think about how much has been invested in encouraging you to make a choice that has been proven by science to be unhealthy. Exercise your “right to choose” for yourself and your family something better than a shorter lifespan due to diabetes or heart disease. Choose health!

Read other articles in the Soda Tax Myths series:

Soda Tax Myths: Are Beverage Companies Friends to the Poor?

Soda Tax Myths: The Arkansas Argument

Soda Tax Myths: Soda Taxes Distract from Real Issues

Truth an Early Casualty in SF’s Soda Tax Fight

Soda Tax Myths: Are Beverages Being Unfairly Targeted?

Soda Tax Myths: Do Soda Taxes Reduce Obesity Rates?

Can Big Soda’s Statistics Be Trusted?

More on debunking soda tax myths.

Dana Woldow has been a school food advocate since 2002 and shares what she has learned at PEACHSF.org. Follow her on Twitter @nestwife, or read more than 140 characters of her writing in her complete archive.

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