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Hard-Hearted Soft Drinks: The New York City Soda Pop War

Untold billions of dollars are spent every year to encourage the public to buy the stuff.

Patrick Powers

One of the things I don't like about living in the US is avoiding all the sugar. The supermarket has hundreds of enticing packages that contain the stuff. When I live by myself I just don't buy it, but Mom always has junk food. Untold billions of dollars are spent every year to encourage the public to buy the stuff. It has to be resisted every day.

A Dr. Tom Farley worked with the City of New York to reduce sugar consumption there and has written an entire book about this. He says that one in nine US adults have Type 2 diabetes! And people worry about the flu. Mayor Bloomberg wanted something done about this sickness affecting 700,000 of his constituents. Tom Farley was hired. An excerpt from his book appeared online in Salon and is well worth reading, but for you busy people a summary follows.

The New York City Board of Health decided that soft drinks were the worst culprits in the diabetes epidemic. They tried to get the State of New York to pass a one cent per ounce tax on soda pop. The beverage industry responded by spending $3 million on lobbying and donating $900,000 to legislators. The proposal sank quietly.

New York City could run anti-soft drink ads. While testing proposed ads the Board of Health found most people didn't realize soda made them fat. It was believed that the average consumption of two cans a day didn't make any difference. New York tried out some anti-pop ads on a focus group. The participants were offended. A billion dollars per year of advertising had built brand loyalty. "It was like we were talking bad about their mother," said a staffer. New York decided "we couldn't run ads like those." It would spark a "firestorm" of consumer outrage.

The Board of Heath decided to concentrate on the message that soda made you fat. They had an actor drink gooey blobs of fat. That seemed to be OK with viewers. They had no money for TV so it went on Youtube. It was a start.

They made another try with the soda tax. Governor Paterson got interested. The hospitals and health care organizations got behind it. That's some big money. The beverage industry responded by spending $13 million. Among other things they hired Goddard Gunster, a PR agency that calls itself "the most sought-after guns for hire." Gunster got the Teamsters Union to come out against the tax. It worked. The proposal died in the legislature.

Stymied in Albany, New York Health had to change tactics. They asked the USDA to change the rules for New York City food stamps so that they couldn't be exchanged for soft drinks. Cigarettes, beer, and prepared food were already excluded. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi wasn't happy about the idea. She sent New York Health a letter accusing them of "attacks on our business." Food banks were angered, saying that the proposal criminalized poverty. The USDA turned down the proposal, saying it was too complex.

Now what? How about trying to control portion sizes. Dr. Farley notes:

When McDonald’s opened in the 1950s, the only size cup on the menu was 7 ounces. By 2010 a “medium” drink at McDonald’s had tripled to 21 ounces.

KFC left that in the dust, offering soda in half-gallon tubs. Research showed that people served smaller portions seldom asked for seconds. So New York Health decided on the yet more modest goal of limiting a serving to 16 ounces. This, they had the power to do. The rule was unfortunately reported in the national news as a "ban." Many of the public thought that New York City was going to ban soda pop. Dr. Farley tells us:

We had caught the soda companies off guard, but after a pause they hit back hard. Their PR firm created a new front group called New Yorkers for Beverage Choices, which put billboards on the backs of soda delivery trucks, with an athletic figure in silhouette defiantly raising a large cup, next to the words “Don’t let bureaucrats tell you what size beverage to buy.” They ran radio spots with “Noo Yawk”–accented actors saying “This is about protecting our freedom of choice,”...They organized a “Million Big Gulp March” on City Hall steps, attended by some fifty people.

When we tried to rally supporters, we saw how deeply embedded the soda companies are in our society. One obesity researcher turned us down because she believed her endorsement might jeopardize her ability to get grants. The head of a health insurance company, which would benefit financially if people stayed healthy, told me that he couldn’t support the portion rule because he would “catch hell” from his clients, the bottling companies.

Muhtar Kent, the Turkish-American CEO of Coca-Cola, flew to New York City to meet with Mayor Bloomberg. "To have this iconic product, the global symbol of America, banned by the city that is the symbol of America was ruining its image." He proposed that Coke start a citywide ad campaign promoting diet products like Coke Zero. It could work. It was tempting. But Bloomberg didn't trust Coke. The sales figures would come from Coca-Cola: would they be truthful? And in eighteen months Mayor Bloomberg would be out of office. What then? Would Coke hold to its promises? New York City decided no. The head of US Coca-Cola bottling told them that Coke would fight "tooth and nail."

Coca-Cola hired a law firm that always referred to the portion cap as The Ban. They got the NAACP to declare that The Ban would unfairly harm minority-owned businesses. Coca-Cola gave over ten million dollars to the City of Chicago in return for its pledge to neither tax nor otherwise regulate the sale of soda pop.

Coca-Cola sued to overturn the rule. At the trial the judge ruled that the Board of Health had power only over "communicable, infectious, and pestilent diseases." Diseases caused by non-living materials were excluded. This meant that existing Board of Health rules banning trans fat, smoking, and lead in paint were invalid. The City appealed. The New York Supreme Court ruled that the trans fat, smoking, and lead in paint rules were OK but the soda pop issue was too complex. Aha.

It was a third defeat, but the publicity it generated DID raise public awareness that maybe soft drinks might be bad for the health. The United States of Mexico has instituted taxes on soda pop and junk food to combat its own epidemic of obesity. In the words of the recently late Yogi Berra, it ain't over till its over.

As for me, I say that all this stuff about "free consumer choice" is bullshit. I remember when the soft drink vending machines changed from 16 ounce to 24 ounce bottles. I didn't see anyone asking any consumers whether they wanted that.

Seven ounce bottles of Coke are still available in Bali. They disappeared here in 1962 or so. My friend David Swain, an Ann Arbor musician, used to go to the Michigan Daily building on the UM campus because they had the only 7 ounce bottles left. Like 'em? Too bad. You don't get that choice. Coke tries to sell larger bottles in Bali, but no luck so far.

What's more, canned drinks in China are far tastier and healthier than what we get in the US. I enjoyed them greatly. It was a strange feeling, going into a convenience store and getting a canned drink that actually tasted good. No, those drinks aren't made by Chinese companies, they are by Lipton and so forth. I'm sure those beverages would sell here too. I think that the companies don't want to incur the expense of introducing new products. Why compete with themselves? So they don't offer the US consumer that choice.

It's soda pop or nothing for you, Yankee.

Patrick Powers is a bass guitarist and poet, formerly of Bali, now living in northern Michigan. Massive promotional Britney Spears McDonalds cup (2001) from a private collection.

Copyright © Patrick Powers. All rights reserved.