Profit Before People: The Case Against the Soft Drink Industry

Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning), by Marion Nestle. Oxford University Press: October, 2015.

Marion Nestle
Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning)
Oxford University Press, October, 2015.

Sugary sodas are often seen as an innocuous product, a small part of our global consumer culture.

Marion Nestle looks behind this façade in her book Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning), and reveals a world of major health concerns, corrupt practices, and a global struggle to limit the power of soda giants.

Nestle is excellently suited to the task, having written award-winning books on the intersection of food and policy. Her best known work is “Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health”, in which she exposed how the US food industry (which had revenues of $900 billion in 2000, and now estimates place it at $1.8 trillion) managed to influence public policy, often at the cost of public health. She is also the Paulette Goddard Professor of Nutrition, Food Studies, and Public Health at New York University, as well as Professor of Sociology at NYU and Visiting Professor of Nutritional Sciences at Cornell.

Like her other works, Soda Politics is full of interesting facts that are generally not known, or discussed. For example, the Coca-Cola Company markets 3,500 different products in more than 200 countries and territories, almost the entire world. Aside from the scale and reach of the soda companies, what exactly they sell is also interesting. A regular 355 ml can of Coke or Pepsi contains about ten teaspoons of sugar. This would produce something similar to gulab jamun syrup, which might be okay by the teaspoonful but it would be hard to drink a glass full of it. To offset the sweetness, phosphoric and citric acids are added for flavour and as a preservative, making sodas as acidic as vinegar. The combination of acid – which dissolves tooth enamel – and high sugar content makes sodas a main contributor to tooth decay. Olympic athletes, as frequent consumers of sports drinks, have very high levels of tooth decay. Unfortunately tooth decay is only one of the many negative health effects of sodas, which disproportionally affect the poor, who have limited access to health services.

Soda Politics focuses its attention on three main areas: how big soda companies harm health and the environment, the wide array of techniques the companies use to deflect criticism, and the history and current direction of the advocacy efforts against them.

The global soda disaster

The health issues associated with sugary drink consumption seem endless: obesity, type 2 diabetes, coronary artery disease, stroke, dental disease, bone disease, gout, asthma, cancers, rheumatoid arthritis, behavioural problems, psychological disorders, premature ageing and addiction. Nestle suggests that more evidence is needed to establish the relationship between sodas and many of these conditions, but the evidence connecting sodas to obesity, type 2 diabetes and heart disease is quite strong. Considering the ill effects of these three alone, she suggests that there be limits on consumption.

The list of how big soda harms the environment is also lengthy. As an extraction industry, the soda industry draws on natural resources like water and agricultural land for growing sugar and corn. It transfers the cost of those resources and of cleaning up cans, bottles and other pollution to the general public. This allows the companies to have very low manufacturing costs, which explains their extraordinary profits – big private gains created by offsetting the costs to the public.

The great publicity machine

Nevertheless, despite being responsible for innumerable health, environmental, labour and political problems – labelled as crimes by many – the soda giants enjoy high ratings in international surveys of corporate public approval. The Coca Cola Company was ranked fourth in India. The management of their reputation is the product of a great amount of skill and investment – arguably more is spent on this than any research and development on the main products they sell.

The companies fund a wide variety of activities that range from scientific research to philanthropy. Company-sponsored research predictably discredits the findings of independent studies that link sodas to bad health, while philanthropy and cultural sponsorships buy loyalty. Marketing initiatives target specific groups like children, who are especially vulnerable to advertising. Many advocacy efforts in the United States have focused on stopping soda marketing to children and getting sodas out of schools.

Marketing has also been directed at minorities like African Americans and Latinos, who initially viewed targeted marketing as a sign of their rising socioeconomic status in the United States. Nestle even shows how Coca-Cola played a role in the history of the civil rights movement in the United States. The civil rights movement began in 1960 when the refusal to serve Cokes to four African Americans at a soda fountain became a symbol of inequality. Eight years later, Martin Luther King was killed the day after delivering a speech calling for a boycott of Coca-Cola to protest unfair labour practices. Coca-Cola has ever since made a point of making philanthropic contributions to African American community organisations. In India, Coca-Cola’s targeted public relations and marketing initiatives include partnering with TERI University to create a department of regional water studies and enlisting Bollywood stars for their advertisements.

The impossibility of “change from within”

Another strategy used by soda companies to deflect criticism is recruiting public health leaders. The most notorious case is when PepsiCo’s CEO Indra Nooyi hired Dr Derek Yach in 2007 as director of global health policy. Yach, a prominent figure who led the WHO’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control and other efforts to develop a global strategy for the prevention of chronic diseases, shocked everyone by accepting this job. Nestle uses Yach’s experience as an object lesson on the difficulties faced when trying to influence the private sector from within. Hiring Yach was part of Nooyi’s stated commitment to wellness and to nutritional products like water, diet sodas and lower calorie drinks. In 2011, Pepsi fell to third place below Coke and Diet Coke, making investment analysts criticise Nooyi’s vision and insist that the company had to refocus on selling its regular Pepsi and Frito Lay products. Yach left PepsiCo in 2012. Nestle asked him to comment on the chapter dedicated to his experience at PepsiCo. After assessing Yach’s response and the list of accomplishments that he reported, Nestle concludes with her characteristic sobriety that working within the industry ends up doing more for industry marketing than for public health. Nestle is equally unimpressed by soda company partnerships to mitigate the environmental damage that they cause in the first place. She labels these initiatives “healthwashing” and “greenwashing.”

An important section of the book is dedicated to what Nestle calls “hardball strategies” used by soda companies. Lobbying is one of the most important and effective strategies in this category. The American Beverage Association has successfully lobbied against nutrition labelling, fair labour standards, container deposit laws and restrictions on television advertising to children, among other issues. Other hardball strategies are lawsuits, front groups, contributions to political campaigns and the revolving door, which allows for 65- 78% of soda industry lobbyists to be former government officials. With such an extensive and effective arsenal of defensive and offensive weapons, it is remarkable that anti-soda activists have managed to score some victories.

An essential strategy document for activists

Nestle is not all gloom and doom. In fact, one of the most appealing things about the book is her optimism on the effects of political activism. The clear-eyed approach to the health issues caused by sodas, as well as the tactics employed by the companies to deflect attention, is matched by a section outlining practical tools for advocacy. Ten out of the 28 chapters of the book focus on the advocacy of a specific issue. These chapters summarise the history of the issue and the main arguments on both sides of the debate. Handy charts list the main talking points of the industry and of the advocates. Many of these chapters also offer a list of specific actions that can be taken in each case.

The battle between activists and soda companies to lessen or eliminate the adverse effects of soda production and consumption is ongoing. Nestle celebrates victories like the passing of a soda tax in Mexico and the fact that sales of Pepsi and Coke in India are not growing as fast as they used to. In the discussion of the environmental effects and the water rights concerns raised by the soda industry’s production methods, the author briefly focuses her attention on India and praises the success of Indian advocacy in the case of Kerala. Even though India’s problems with Coca-Cola involve many ongoing issues that range from ground water depletion and contamination to excessive caffeine levels and pesticide residue in the drink itself, the praise of Indian activism is well deserved. If the experience of India is an example of what is to come in other developing countries, it is important to establish a strong precedent of successful activism.

More and better activism is necessary to keep on winning, since we cannot expect soda companies to monitor themselves, as corporate responsibility schemes would have it. Nestle’s position on this is clear, “The best thing Pepsi could do for worldwide obesity would be to go out of business.” Until that day comes, though, the fight will continue.

Zilkia Janer teaches at Hofstra University in New York, and she has written about the food culture of Latin America and India.