Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning) by Marion Nestle
Reviewed by David Lorimer
Marion Nestlé is Professor of Sociology at New York University and author of many books on the food industry, including Food Politics. Here she turns her attention to the soda industry, not only informing the general reader on the necessary background, but providing information for the kind of advocacy that takes on the industry with a view to drastically reducing its profits. The issue is all the more urgent with current rates of obesity and diabetes and applies to the nature of the food industry as a whole, not just soft drinks. As she points out in her introduction, the tactics used by the soda industry resemble those of the tobacco industry a generation ago and currently used by Big Food, Big Alcohol and Big Pharma.
Her research shows how ‘food companies use marketing, lobbying, partnerships, and philanthropy to promote sales, regardless of how their products might affect health.’ More importantly, the book explains how these four aspects of doing business are strategically related. Cigarette and soda companies ‘both aim to sell as much of their products as possible, regardless of health consequences.’ They promote consumption through massive advertising, much aimed at children and low income groups. Philanthropy is used to create goodwill and build brand loyalty, while lobbyists operate in Congress and they forge alliances with health organisations and researchers. The book explains these factors in detail, starting with the nature of the product and its effects on health, then moving on the industry and how it works in terms of targeting children, minorities and the poor. Softball tactics including recruiting allies, marketing corporate social responsibility, investing in sponsorships and partnerships, and defending the environment. Hardball approaches strenuously defend their turf and attack critics. Properly informed advocacy is regarded by industry as the greatest threat to their sales, and this book gives provides the necessary information on which to campaign.
Nestlé sets out the facts and figures relating to sodas and especially the big players, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr Pepper. A standard 12-ounce drink contains 10 teaspoons of sugar, so that the principal role of the other ingredients is to mask this sweetness. Incidentally, much of the high fructose corn syrup is GM, which explains why these companies support anti-labelling campaigns. Current consumption in the US is about one can but person per day, while 20% of people report drinking more than four a day. This habit affects not only obesity, but also teeth. Chapter 7 gives an overview of the industry, where the leader is Coca-Cola with annual profits of around $11 billion on turnover of $48 billion. Needless to say, this profitability gives the company enormous leverage as economic muscle is translated into political power, partly through the drinks industry trade group, the American Beverage Association.
As with the food industry in general, big soda argues that obesity is a matter of individual and parental responsibility, with personal choice represented as a fundamental freedom and sodas as having a place in balanced diets. From a PR point of view, the industry aims to avoid public criticism, head off government regulation and protect sales. In this respect, Nestlé outlines the strategies of emphasising devotion to health and wellness by reframing the issues and diverting attention to physical activity as well as introducing healthier product lines; selling to everyone everywhere, including children and minorities; building allies through philanthropy, partnerships and sponsorship; and protecting corporate interests by attacking legitimate science and the state as an interfering nanny, as well as forming advocacy groups disguised as scientific institutions. Throughout her treatment, Nestlé deconstructs industry arguments either through explaining in brackets what is really at stake or by setting out two columns of what the industry claims and how this can be countered by health advocates. Emphasising physical activity is especially important as one can see by major Coca Cola sports sponsorships including the football World Cup and the Olympics since 1928.
There is a separate chapter on marketing and whole sections on targeting children, minorities and the poor. These sections also contain guidelines for advocacy including getting sodas out of schools and putting a stop to inappropriate marketing. Nestlé gives a number of specific examples of marketing initiatives by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo aimed at the Hispanic and Mexican markets. She rightly contends that company philanthropy and marketing are inextricably linked to business objectives. PepsiCo is quoted as saying that their long-term profitable growth is linked intrinsically to their ability to deliver on social and environmental objectives – marketing by another name but disguised as promoting health, investing in communities, supporting worthy causes and protecting the environment. For instance, Coca Cola and PepsiCo sponsor the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and Coke supports the Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness where the talk is of energy balance, mindful eating, physical activity, hydration (sodas are an excellent source!), myths about dietary recommendations and translating scientific information into public health advice – in other words criticising scientific links between sugar and health and funding research that will support their message (see table on p. 263). These CSR ‘healthwashing’ initiatives are, however, dwarfed by advertising expenditure.
Chapter 20 is devoted to ‘working from within’, using the story of Dr Derek Yach who transferred from the WHO to PepsiCo – the treatment seems very fair to me, and contains a response from Dr Yach. The industry does do some good work in terms of the environment, but their role in water supply is ambivalent, especially when factories in developing countries result in a drastic fall in the local water table. As with the food industry in general, Nestlé shows how there is a revolving door between government and industry lobbies, fuelled by campaign contributions that can now be funnelled through PACs following a Supreme Court decision where a majority of judges were effectively supporters of Big Food and Soda interests. Industry organisations like the Centre for Consumer Freedom uphold personal choice and attack what they call the food police and meddling bureaucrats claiming to know what’s best for you. Needless to say, Nestlé herself is a prime target as a member of the food police and ‘one of the country’s most hysterical anti-food industry fanatics with radical goals’ – she can be proud of this prominent attack where she is one of the messengers to be shot.
So we effectively have a situation of Big Food, Big Tobacco and Big Soda vs. Public Health, a point forcefully made by the director-general of the WHO, Dr Margaret Chan, who herself has endorsed this book and accuses governments of prioritising big business over health. However, the kind of advocacy promoted in this hugely informative and well-written book is gradually making a dent on the junk food and drinks industry and Nestlé’s conclusion also sets out best practice for advocates, encouraging readers to join the food movement ‘to make adequate, safe, accessible, affordable, healthy and delicious food available for everyone, everywhere.’