In a paper published in the Public Library of Science titled “Soda and Tobacco Industry Corporate Social Responsibility Campaigns: How Do They Compare?”, authors Lori Dorfman, Andrew Cheyne, Lissy C. Friedman, Asiya Wadud, and Mark Gottlieb expertly describe how Big Beverage desperately employs Social Responsibility Campaigns (SRCs) — like PepsiCo’s Refresh and Coca-Cola’s Live Positively — to delay regulation, shield itself from criticism, and elevate its reputation.
- “Because sugary beverages are implicated in the global obesity crisis, major soda manufacturers have recently employed campaigns echo the tobacco industry’s use of CSR as a means to focus responsibility on consumers rather than on the corporation, bolster the companies’ and their products’ popularity, and to prevent regulation.”
- “As they did with tobacco, public health advocates need to counter industry CSR with strong denormalization campaigns to educate the public and policymakers about the effects of soda CSR campaigns and the social ills caused by sugary beverages.”
- “Sugar-sweetened beverage (SSB) consumption has helped fuel this crisis; from 1977 to 2004 U.S. children more than doubled their caloric intake from SSBs, in 2004 they received 13% of their caloric intake from SSBs.”
- “When facing crises over health concerns, many industries attempt to thwart regulation and gain popular support. The tobacco industry has a long history of influencing the public and policymakers, and oil companies, among others, have emulated Big Tobacco’s “playbook” in this regard. Corporations aim to do this by distorting science, wielding political influence, deploying financial tactics, influencing legal and regulatory actions, promoting their own products and services, and investing heavily in public relations.”
- “By highlighting the importance of consumers making healthy choices instead of the companies’ roles in creating an unhealthy environment, soda company and tobacco industry CSR campaigns emphasize personal, instead of corporate, responsibility. For instance, the tobacco industry’s “youth smoking prevention” programs appeared to combat youth smoking, but instead placed responsibility on parents and children for the decision to smoke. Similarly, in its “Balanced Living” message on Live Positively, Coca-Cola suggests that the company is responsible only for providing health information to consumers, such as through the “Clear on Calories” labels that show calorie counts on the front of bottles or cans. The company suggests that health is ultimately up to consumers, because with new labels, “you’ll know exactly how many calories are in a beverage before making a purchase—whether at a store, one of our vending machines or fountain machines—making it easier for you to make informed choices and live a healthy, active lifestyle”. PepsiCo’s advertisement for the UK’s Change4Life campaign likewise insists that “active parents make active kids.””
- “The soda industry appears to be improving upon Big Tobacco’s CSR strategy by acting sooner. Although the tobacco industry responded to critics in 1954 with the nationwide newspaper advertisement “A Frank Statement to Cigarette Smokers”, decades lapsed between the public’s outcry regarding tobacco and when the industry mounted concerted CSR campaigns. While soda companies may not face the level of social stigmatization or regulatory pressure that now confronts Big Tobacco, concern over soda and the obesity epidemic is growing. The World Health Organization and the U.S. Surgeon General cited soda as a key contributor to obesity, U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move initiative prompted new company policies by soda marketers, and interest in soda taxes is growing. The soda companies are feeling this pressure.”
So, what are public health advocates to do? “Sitting at the table” and partnering with industry is not a viable solution.
Instead, the authors recommend that:
“Public health advocates must continue to monitor the CSR activities of soda companies, and remind the public and policymakers that, similar to Big Tobacco, soda industry CSR aims to position the companies, and their products, as socially acceptable rather than contributing to a social ill.”
We hope the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics takes this advice to heart and reconsiders its partnerships with Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, which have only hurt the Academy’s reputation among its own constituents, other health professionals, and the general public