Boyd Swinburn: Coke changing its stripes on health? Fat chance

By Boyd Swinburn [NCCOR Envision Member]

Coca-Cola has launched a massive PR campaign to convince everyone that it is now part of the solution to the obesity epidemic. However, the promise of an ounce of a Coke-sponsored sports program in New Zealand does not outweigh the ton of bricks dumped by Big Food and Big Soda on the real public health policies, which could reduce obesity here and around the world.

On July 29 Professor Paul McDonald congratulated Coke for its public-spirited pledges of offering some smaller serving sizes (but it did not offer to pull the 2.25l bottles from the shelves), putting some nutritional information on vending machines (but it has heavily opposed the traffic light labeling schemes that the public prefers), and sponsoring a few physical activity programs as a nice bit of marketing and a distraction from the real obesity drivers of too many calories.

Make no mistake, this is strictly business as usual. We cannot expect corporations, which have built their global commercial success on selling more sugar, fat, and salt to embrace the idea of eating and drinking less.

Who can blame them? It is their job to sell more; that is what we, as a society, have established corporations to do. In doing so, they contribute to the economy and provide the goods and services that people are prepared to pay for, although, unfortunately, part of that price is an increased risk of obesity and diabetes.

We should be under no illusions, whatsoever: Coke’s PR campaign will not contribute to reducing obesity. In fact, if it is really successful in achieving its goals of staving off the more important policies that the World Health Organization is calling for such as restricting junk food to children and applying taxes to sugar-sweetened beverages, Coke’s campaign will be a net negative influence.

Coca-Cola’s CEO, Muthar Kent, talks of the “Golden Triangle” of business, government, and civil society organizations working together for the common good. The reality, sadly, is that one party is holding most of the gold and their conversion of that economic power into political power is the main reason we have seen very little progress in obesity policy over the last 25 years.

Professor McDonald believes that the food industry can “create miracles” in improving health and he points to the decline of heart disease in Finland as a case in point. In fact, heart disease has plummeted by 50 to 70 percent in many wealthy countries, including New Zealand, over the past 40 years without having to challenge the food corporations’ model of selling more calories. The heart-health quality of the diet has improved but at the same time, the quantities of calories have also increased with the Finnish getting fatter just like we are.

Food and beverage corporations must be engaged as part of the solution to our growing obesity and diabetes epidemics. But believing that an industry-developed PR campaign will make a difference is to ignore the history of public health successes like reducing smoking and the road toll. Strong government policies must lead the way.

Mr. Kent’s idea of getting the parties around the table is a good place to start, but this will only work if the Government sits at the head of the table defining the policy outcomes to be achieved and business leaves its ton of bricks behind.

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