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Time to Put Big Soda on a Diet

Excess sugar intake is killing Americans. But a few giant, consolidated beverage companies keep squashing reform efforts.

January 2, 2016  |  by Leah Douglas
Read on Washington Monthly

From the latest Taco Bell concoction to the lack of fresh produce in many low-income communities across the country, there’s no shortage of targets to blame for America’s poor national diet. But in recent years, many public health campaigns have zeroed in on a single enemy: soda. And there’s good reason for this. Drinking soda is entirely optional (there’s no medical reason to consume sugar water). It is remarkably common (around 50 percent of Americans regularly consume non-diet sodas). And the industry has huge political sway (Big Soda contributes millions of dollars a year to campaigns and candidates).

Now Marion Nestle (no relation to the Nestlé food company), a nutritionist and professor of sociology and food systems at New York University, has written what she hopes will serve as a guide to effectively fighting the soda industry. In Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (And Winning), Nestle details how soda companies have used their power to manipulate our political process and encourage overconsumption of their products. “Everyone interested in health,” she writes, should be “doing everything possible to discourage the marketing, promotion, and political protection of sugary drinks.”

Nestle isn’t a hardliner about soda or sugar consumption in moderation. “Sugars are indeed delicious,” she writes, “and even their severest critics are not concerned about small amounts.” But the average American isn’t consuming sugar in moderation. American children on average consume 16 percent of their daily calories in added sugars, and for adults the average is 13 percent. That’s way higher than most health experts’ recommendation, that sugars should comprise at most 10 percent of daily calories. High sugar consumption has been associated with higher risk for heart disease, diabetes, and obesity.

The attack on Big Soda will be familiar to many readers. The issue made headlines in 2012 when then New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempted to pass a 1-cent-per-ounce soda tax. Many critics dismissed that attempt, along with Bloomberg’s effort to cap the size of fountain soda containers, as “nanny statism.” But soda taxes have found an audience elsewhere. Earlier this year, Berkeley, California, implemented a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages. In the two years since the federal government in Mexico imposed a 10 percent tax on sodas, national soda consumption has dropped by 6 percent.

But these victories are small compared to the power and size of the soda industry. The top three soda companies—Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and Dr Pepper Snapple Group—control 86 percent of the U.S. soda market. Globally, the top two control 50 percent of the soda market. That market share represents an enormous number of products. Coca-Cola alone sells over 3,500 products under 500 different brand names in more than 200 countries.

And the big keep getting bigger. In recent years, Coca-Cola has bought a number of smaller beverage lines, including Naked Juice, Honest Tea, and Vitaminwater. They’ve also integrated across sectors: in 2009, both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo bought their North American bottling companies. Coca-Cola and PepsiCo had previously primarily acted as syrup producers, but, as Nestle explains, “producing the syrup controls the enterprise; every company further down the supply chain depends on getting syrup from the manufacturer.”

Some of the more disturbing sections of Soda Politics detail how Big Soda uses its power to fight efforts by federal and local authorities to reduce soda consumption or in any other way threaten their dominance. The industry has, for instance, long been a pioneer in the use of sham grassroots advocacy groups—sometimes called “astroturf” groups—to support their efforts. Such groups are designed to artificially shape public opinion by making it seem like ordinary consumers without an industry bias are in favor of low industry regulation. Nestle identifies seventeen astroturf groups funded by the American Beverage Association, a soda industry trade group, from Maryland to California to Vermont. These groups seek to turn public opinion against issues like soda taxes, container size restrictions, and limits on marketing soda to children.

Nestle also shows how soda companies have used their political heft to fight the passage and implementation of bottle deposit laws and other regulatory measures meant to decrease the waste impact of the soda industry. Soda companies are opposed to bottle deposits because they believe that even a refundable 5-cent increase on the price of a bottle of soda would reduce overall consumption.

More disturbingly, Nestle recounts how the soda giants leverage their influence to avoid scrutiny. Companies used to report how much soda was made available for consumption to the USDA, which would publish per capita soda availability statistics annually. But in 2003, the Beverage Marketing Corporation, an industry trade group that collected this data, stopped allowing its information to be made available to the public. As a result, even simple facts about the industry, like exactly how much soda is produced each year, can be hard to figure out.

Nestle highlights how Big Soda throws its weight around in political fights that seem to have little to do with the interests of the industry. In 2012, for instance, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo together donated more than $4.2 million to defeat Proposition 37 in California, a ballot initiative that would have required food companies to label products that contain genetically modified ingredients (like much high-fructose corn syrup). Big Soda also shapes public policy through donations to political campaigns and PACs. According to OpenSecrets.org, a watchdog group that tracks money in U.S. politics, Coca-Cola Co. alone spent over $11 million on lobbying and contributions in the 2014 election cycle.

Yet for all of Nestle’s detailing of how these corporations consolidate and use power, she spends less time looking into the roots of that power. The main flaw in Soda Politics is that the policy solutions Nestle advocates largely place the responsibility for changing the behavior of this industry on the consumer. Given the extensive political influence that soda companies have accumulated, and the lack of political will—even in a liberal city like New York—to pass soda taxes, consumer behavior alone won’t reel in the soda industry. A stronger analysis would advocate strengthening antitrust and campaign finance laws that allowed for the creation of such a powerful industry in the first place, rather than relying primarily on small taxes and restrictions on container size to check the power of gigantic corporations.

Nestle also largely overlooks issues of class and race. While she does discuss Big Soda’s use of targeted advertising to sell to people of color, and use of donations to civil rights groups to weaken the support for new taxes, she doesn’t examine the race and class implications of her own policy solutions. Some of the solutions she promotes—such as per-ounce taxes and removing soda from the food stamp program—disproportionately affect low-income and marginalized populations. Nestle defends this stance on the grounds that diabetes and obesity also disproportionately affect those communities, and therefore they will benefit most from such changes. But she does little to counter the charge that such policy amounts to a form of paternalism.

The story is not entirely bleak. Recent data has shown soda consumption falling across demographics, as well as a growing awareness of the dangers of drinking too much sugar, in part due to increased media attention on the issue. Nestle attributes this changing tide to successful advocacy, from regulating soda availability in schools to restricting how it is marketed to children.

In the end, Soda Politics succeeds as an exposé, yet falls short as a guide to action. Many of Nestle’s advocacy recommendations focus on the eater’s responsibility to effect change in the food system, with less attention paid to broader antitrust and campaign finance regulation that could scale back the power Big Soda wields over our food industry and political system. While a worthy read for its background on why soda has become a talking point in today’s public health debates, Soda Politics fails to draw a comprehensive road map to soda industry reform.

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In America today, wealth and political power are more concentrated than at any point in our country’s history.

The Open Markets Institute, formerly the Open Markets program at New America, was founded to protect liberty and democracy from these extreme -- and growing -- concentrations of private power.

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