Study: How Soda Companies’ Social Responsibility Campaigns Are Harming Your Health

Media and public-health researchers argue that social responsibility campaigns launched by the soda industry are dangerously similar to those used by the tobacco industry to counter public health concerns.

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In the battle against obesity, public health experts and politicians have recently made sugary soda Public Enemy No. 1. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg proposed a citywide ban on all large-sized sugared beverages, and other community leaders are following suit.

The soda industry has fought back, arguing that soda is not exclusively to blame for America’s obesity problem, and that soft drinks have been unfairly singled out. “Consumption of added sugars is going down,” Karen Hanretty, vice president of public affairs for the American Beverage Association (ABA), told CNN in April. “Soda consumption has declined, even as obesity has increased. To say that sugar is solely responsible for obesity, doesn’t make sense.”

But the soda industry’s efforts to burnish its image run much deeper than PR statements — in ways the public may not even realize, say media and public-health experts writing in the journal PLoS Medicine. In their new paper, one of a series of reports called “Big Food” that examines the activities and influence of the food and beverage industry, they shine light on the elaborate and expensive corporate social responsibility (CSR) campaigns that they say major soda manufacturers are using to dodge public health scrutiny.

These CSR campaigns are similar to tactics employed by the tobacco industry when it came under attack in the 1950s, the authors argue, and they’re just as dangerous to public health.

(MORE: Meet Big Soda — as Bad as Big Tobacco)

The researchers examined CSR initiatives by industry bigwigs like PepsiCo and Coca-Cola and found that — like similar campaigns launched by the tobacco industry in response to health concerns — they were designed to refocus responsibility from corporations back onto consumers, to increase the popularity of the companies’ products, and to prevent government regulation. They also explicitly aimed to increase sales, especially among teens, something that tobacco companies’ CSR campaigns didn’t attempt.

“Soda CSR initiatives have to be put in perspective. They’re using them to distract the public and policy makers from their main business, which is selling sugary and caffeinated drinks to as many people as possible,” says Andrew Cheyne, a study co-author and a researcher at the Berkeley Media Studies Group in California.

Examples of soda industry’s campaigns include:

Pepsi Refresh Project: In 2010, PepsiCo refrained from advertising during the Super Bowl, for the first time in 23 years, and instead launched the Pepsi Refresh Project, a social media marketing campaign in which Pepsi solicited consumer ideas for worthy projects — like community arts or refreshing parklands — and then donated a total of $20 million to the projects that garnered the most votes each month.

The initiative directly bolstered product sales by offering people up to 100 additional ‘‘Power Votes’’ if they purchased specially marked Pepsi beverages. It also targeted young people not only through social media, but also by hiring a marketing firm to conduct a multicity tour featuring popular musicians to inform youth about the initiative, the authors write.

“PepsiCo considers millennials — those aged 11 to 31 — a ‘key cohort’ for the Pepsi Refresh initiative. The company applied specific marketing metrics to measure the positive effect the campaign had on the intent of millennials to buy PepsiCo products,” says Cheyne.

PepsiCo, for its part, doesn’t deny that it’s blending charity with moneymaking. The authors quote Shiv Singh, a marketing officer for the Refresh Project, who notes that the campaign is ‘‘not a traditional non-profit corporate philanthropy effort that we just go write checks. It’s putting the DNA of doing and feeling good at the core of a brand marketing effort.’’

Live Positively: Coca-Cola’s CSR initiatives fall under the Live Positively banner, the authors write. The company has launched educational campaigns like ‘‘Balanced Living’’ and ‘‘Exercise is Medicine’’ to urge consumers to achieve healthy lifestyles, support charitable projects, like the refurbishment of basketball courts and school athletic fields in underserved communities. Among the many avenues through which Coca-Cola promotes Live Positively is on its line of 7.5-oz. mini-cans of Coke — a product that Slate’s William Saletan has called “the new light cigarette.”

“It appears that the soda CSR campaigns reinforce the idea that obesity is caused by customers’ ‘bad’ behavior, diverting attention from soda’s contribution to rising obesity rates,” the authors write.

“[Coca-Cola] claimed their goal is to double the number of servings by 2010. To do that, it needs to be seen as a good corporate citizen,” says Cheyne. “But Coca-Cola’s goal is at odds with what we need in the middle of a health crisis.”

(VIDEO: Does Targeting Fast Food Joints Actually Help Combat Obesity)

The authors go so far as to compare the harms of sugared beverages to those of cigarettes. “Emerging science on the addictiveness of sugar, especially when combined with the known addictive properties of caffeine found in many sugary beverages, should further heighten awareness of the product’s public health threat similar to the understanding about the addictiveness of tobacco products,” they write.

The American Beverage Association (ABA) responded to the report in an open statement:

“There is simply no comparison between soda and tobacco — not among our products, nor our business practices. Tobacco in and of itself is harmful — in any amount; our beverages are not. They can be enjoyed as part of a balanced, active and healthy lifestyle. Furthermore, despite the authors’ suggestions, corporate social responsibility programs are not unique to our industry. They are widely recognized and embraced by leading businesses around the globe. To suggest otherwise is not only untrue, but shines a light on the inherent bias of this opinion piece.

The ABA notes also that the report did not include perspective from the industry on its role in global health, and point out that beverage companies are now delivering more choices, smaller portions and lower-calorie, more clearly labeled products.

(MORE: Sugary Drinks Linked to Heart Risk in Men)

This is far from the first time the soda industry has come under fire for manipulating its public image in response to health concerns. Last year, Kelly Brownell, director of Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, compared “Big Soda” to “Big Tobacco” on TIME’s Ideas blog:

The tobacco industry paid scientists who did research disputing links between smoking and lung cancer, the addictive nature of nicotine, and the dangers of secondhand smoke. The soda industry funds scientists who reliably produce research showing no link between [sugar-sweetened beverage] consumption and health. The tobacco industry bought favor from community and national organizations by giving large donations. In an ironic twist, Coca Cola and PepsiCo are corporate sponsors of the American Dietetic Association.

Much is known about the tobacco industry’s machinations because of internal company documents made public through litigation. “We don’t have the same type of internal documents to describe the intent of the soda industry, but we know that soda companies took similar actions at a time when they are facing increasing pressure over their products,” says Cheyne. “We also found that unlike the tobacco industry, which had been somewhat discredited by the time they turned to CSR practices, the soda industry has quickly turned to CSR programs.”

To counter these campaigns, the authors say it’s imperative that public health officials and advocates, as well as policy makers, take it upon themselves to educate the public and protect them from the dangers of sugary drinks — just as they did with tobacco. “It’s not a matter of what should be done as much as what is being done. Communities around the country are concerned about sugary drinks, and are beginning to take steps to protect themselves from these harmful products,” says Cheyne.

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