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Center for Food Safety Comments at New York City Soda Limits Hearing

August 2nd, 2012
By Michele Simon, JD, MPH, Food Policy Consultant with the Center for Food Safety
Center for Food Safety

Last week I had the pleasure of lending my support, on behalf of the Center for Food Safety, to New York City’s proposal to limit the size of sugary beverages sold at food service outlets. (I wrote previously about why this policy makes sense.) The hearing room at New York’s health department was packed with media outlets and hundreds of folks eager to witness the showdown with Big Soda.

Interestingly, no one from an actual soda company spoke up. But we did hear from several trade associations, along with members of the city council, several of whom objected to the idea over potential negative impacts on small business. As I explained in my own remarks, this talking point is a classic misdirect put up by major corporations. Here are a few excerpts from my comments:

This isn’t about choice or any other distracting rhetoric

The soda industry, because it does not have science (or even common sense) on its side, is resorting to methods of distraction such as claiming that this proposal is an affront to consumer choice. Of course, this proposal doesn’t take anybody’s choice away. New Yorkers who wish to consume more than 16 ounces are free to purchase more.

But let’s take a closer look at the concept of choice. It is the soda industry that has taken away the choice of reasonable portion sizes. Nobody demanded larger beverages. Cups got larger and larger over the years because the soda industry (in coordination with food service outlets) realized it has a gold mine on its hand. When the beverage industry and its cohorts use the word “choice,” it’s really code for threatened profit margins — which are estimated to be as high as 90 percent. 90 percent.

The soda industry is acting like Big Tobacco

One tried and true tactic of the tobacco industry is inventing “grassroots” smokers’ organizations, a strategy known as Astro-turfing (as in fake grass). It’s a great way for companies that don’t want their fingerprints on a controversial campaign to hide behind a front group. Such groups tend to garner public sympathy and support while attracting media attention. “New Yorkers for Beverage Choices” is a classic Astro-turfing campaign led by the American Beverage Association, the soft drink industry’s lobbying group, which has retained powerful political and PR consultants. Who made this list of alleged New Yorkers so concerned with their choices? For starters, other lobbying groups outside of New York, such as:

  • The Grocery Manufacturers Association
  • The International Franchise Association
  • The National Association of Concessionaires
  • The National Association of Theater Owners
  • The National Restaurant Association

Also, restaurant chains like Chick-Fil-A, Denny’s, and Darden Restaurants, owner of Olive Garden and Red Lobster, among others. Not quite the sort of grassroots activism members you hope for in a campaign about personal choice.

Additional Big Tobacco-style tactics from the soda lobby include:

  • Shooting the messenger and name-calling, by depicting Mayor Bloomberg as a “nanny” in full-page ads taken out by the industry front group, Center for Consumer Freedom, which not coincidentally, began with funding from Philip Morris and is run by notorious tobacco lobbyist Rick Berman;
  • Claiming to take the side of small businesses because they know the public and the press have more sympathy for the little guy than multinational corporations such as Coca-Cola and PepsiCo;
  • Claiming to care about the economic plight of poor people, never mind the fact that the soda industry targets these same populations with advertising designed to get them hooked for life on their unhealthy products.

Ultimately, the tobacco industry lost all credibility with the American public (along with most policymakers) by engaging in such deceitful tactics.

In conclusion, the soda industry is running scared because they know the jig is up; that the public health crisis their products have helped create means that industry cannot keep enjoying the same unfettered regulatory environment. This common sense proposal will catch on as other cities take New York’s lead. This is an idea whose time has come.

You can read the submitted comments here.  A decision by New York’s board of health is expected in September.

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