Thursday 21 June 2012

It's official: Soda is new tobacco

Having spent years explaining that the anti-smoking crusade is merely Phase One in a wider assault on liberty, it seems my work may soon be at an end. As the EU prepares itself for a Framework Convention on Alcohol, an article has appeared in PLoS which removes any doubt about the slippery slope. Directly comparing the soda industry with the tobacco industry, a bunch of social scientists from—you guessed it—California bludgeon the reader over the head with the news that Coca-Cola and its customers are next in line for denormalisation and extortion.

The hook for their argument is the soda industry's 'corporate social responsibility' programmes, ie. various anti-obesity campaigns, multi-million dollar philanthropy and community involvement. The authors note that the tobacco industry has also given money to the community in this way and therefore, by this tenuous association, the soda industry is EVIL.

Many other businesses also have corporate social responsibility programmes, of course, but they don't get mentioned because it would spoil their already paper-thin argument. Instead, they focus on Pepsi's Refresh project and Coca-Cola's Live Positively campaign.

As exposés go, I've seen better.

They use educational campaigns such as “Balanced Living” or “Exercise is Medicine” to urge individual consumers to achieve healthy lifestyles;


... [they] support charitable projects, such as the $2 million Spark Your Park (also called Sprite Spark Parks) initiative to refurbish basketball courts and school athletic fields in underserved communities;

The swine! Their businesses should be closed down, their factories razed to the ground and salt poured on the land so nothing can ever grow there again.

...and develop initiatives to improve the company's own business practices, e.g. reducing its water consumption.

Disgraceful stuff, I'm sure you'll agree. Just like Big Tobacco, only worse...

Soda CSR differs from tobacco in its explicit appeals to youth and in the aggressive launch of comprehensive campaigns soon after soda was linked to obesity.

It seems to be an iron rule that when governments spend large sums of money on public health campaigns, the advertisements are "innovative" and "hard-hitting", whereas even the most modest industry advertising campaign is "aggressive". Elsewhere in this article you can read about how the soda industry "has aggressively lobbied against taxes" and is "explicitly and aggressively profit-seeking". I wonder who the real aggressors are—the businesses trying to defend themselves or the fanatics who would impose their beliefs on others using state force?

Even from these brief descriptions it appears that the soda CSR campaigns reinforce the idea that obesity is caused by customers' “bad” behavior

If by 'bad behaviour' you mean choosing to consume more calories than you burn off, then yes, obesity is caused by bad behaviour.

Such tactics redirect the responsibility for health outcomes from corporations onto its consumers...

Beyond having to comply with basic safety requirements, corporations are in no way responsible for your health. You are. Never in history have we had more choice about what we eat and drink. Even within the soda industry, there exists a huge range of low- and zero-calorie products for you to choose from. What you decide to eat and drink is entirely a matter for you. Few choices are more personal and less public.

...and externalize the negative effects of increased obesity to the public

That sentence makes no sense. The soda industry is in no way responsible for someone becoming obese, but even if it were, the effect could only ever be internal to that person.

The overall goal for the tobacco industry's CSR strategy has been to normalize its products and its corporate image, but it has struggled as public health advocates have denormalized tobacco use and challenged tobacco companies trying to rehabilitate their images. Historically, advocates countered such campaigns by stigmatizing smoking. Now, denormalization characterizes the corporation's activities as a disease vector, and highlights the disingenuous use of CSR.

...The soda industry appears to be improving upon Big Tobacco's CSR strategy by acting sooner.

Sooner before what? Before "advocates" denormalise soda drinking, stigmatise soda drinkers and portray the soda industry as a disease vector, presumably. Well, yes. And who can blame them? They have the advantage of having seen the anti-tobacco blueprint. They know what's coming. They know that "advocates" will not stop with warning labels and sin taxes. They know that "advocates" will never be satisfied until the targeted product is illegal. Damn right they need to act. It's a shame that this action is limited to setting up charitable trusts.

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.

You don't need to read too far between the lines to see that social stigmatisation is on the horizon.

Unlike tobacco, at the first signs of soda denormalization soda companies quickly launched comprehensive, well-funded, international CSR campaigns that take advantage of social media.

Soda denormalisation, eh? How quickly things progress. For the "advocates", of course, this denormalisation is both essential and urgent.

Without sustained denormalization of soda, it will be harder for public health advocates to see why partnering with industry may further the companies' goals more than their own.

So what next? Having set our sights on the soda industry, all we need is a bit of junk science to decorate the crusade.

Research on the health harms of sugary beverages can help advocates name these products as one of the “biggest culprits” behind the obesity crisis. Emerging science on the addictiveness and toxicity 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.

And there you have it. Addiction, toxicity, 'public health' and an evil industry that is copying Big Tobacco. I think we can say that Phase Two has officially begun.


Dick Puddlecote said...

The soda drinker as 'addict'. This is taken from the anti-tobacco playbook too.

Once that it established, personal choice can be discarded entirely as a concept. The BBC currently have a series attempting to do exactly that with food.

Anonymous said...

More money for the nannies and ZERO effect on the so called 'obesity epidemic'.

Banning soft drinks to combat obesity??

While there were great differences in the children’s diets, these differences weren’t at all related to their weights.

Despite fears of bad foods, numerous researchers have found that eating high-calorie, low-nutrient dense foods like sweets doesn’t correlate with children’s weights and that consumption is high among ALL kids

. Canadian researchers looked at the diets of more than 130,000 kids in 34 countries and reported in a recent issue of Obesity Reviews that fat kids even eat the LEAST sweets, and that kids’ body weights had nothing to do with how many fruits, vegetables or soft drinks they consumed.

This is just one study of a profusion of others, both clinical and epidemiological, over the past fifty years demonstrating that fat children (and adults) as a group normally eat exactly the same as thin people.

Multiple researchers, using a variety of methodologies, have failed to find any meaningful or replicable differences in the caloric intake or eating patterns of the obese compared to the non-obese to explain obesity, concluded David Garner, Ph.D. and Susan Wooley, Ph.D., for example, in their review of some 500 studies on weight in Clinical Psychology Review.

Gary K.

Bucko said...

Good post. I've pinched a bit for a letter to my MP about minimun alcohol pricing. It's in reply to a reply he sent me that could have been written by Alcohol Concern

dearieme said...

Those who would bully us refer to "emerging science" (i.e. there is no good evidence), "settled science" (i.e. how dare you argue about the evidence!) and "peer-reviewed science" (i.e. I and my mates favourably review each others' papers and obstruct anyone else from publishing in our area).

Anonymous said...

Am just waiting for the Department of Health to be renamed the 'Department of Behaviour Control'

Michael J. McFadden said...

"It seems to be an iron rule that when governments spend large sums of money on public health campaigns, the advertisements are "innovative" and "hard-hitting", whereas even the most modest industry advertising campaign is "aggressive". "

Yep. Language is a deadly weapon -- as you point out so well in your further discussion of "addiction."

Back in the early 1990s there was a "pro-smoking nut" (Clif Roberson) on the old alt.smokers newsgroup who used to claim that the whole new thing about "smoking addiction" was simply a prelude to the Antis plan to focus on "the children" being "addicted" by the "BigT drug pushers."

The "nut" obviously was more of a Cassandra than a nut.


Michael J. McFadden said...

The Telegraph article on this noted that the Soda folks were defending themselves by saying

"Eight hundred of these products we've introduced in the last four or five years are calorie-free or low-calorie."

So I posted this:

Low-calorie? Is that like "Low Tar and Nicotine"?

Do they get good balance of sugar and caffeine to properly hook the kids? Over 97% of soda drinkers started as children, and very few ever manage to totally quit later in life. Soda should be banned from all schools -- including all college campuses.

Perhaps every bottle of soda should have 75% of its surface area covered with pictures of extremely corpulent bikini- and speedo-clad bodies, varied once in a while with photos of burst hearts, or perhaps closeups of the bedsores that the morbidly obese develop.

The sodas could also be hit with tobacco-equivalent tax rates of 200% or so, tripling the cost of a bottle of pop: studies have shown that the price increase will reduce childhood consumption significantly -- who could be against such a safeguard?