Marketers Respond to 'Global Dump Soda Campaign'

Beverage marketing associations are firing back in response to a new "Global Dump Soda Campaign" spearheaded by the U.S.-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) and the International Association of Consumer Food Organizations.

The campaign, also supported by international consumer groups such as Corporate Accountability International and Safe Food International, is "aimed at transnational giants Coca-Cola and PepsiCo" and seeks to "call attention to the marketing of sugary soft drinks and other high-calorie beverages linked to the worldwide childhood obesity crisis," according to CSPI's announcement.

The campaign, being kicked off this week at the Consumers International Congress in Sydney, Australia, calls on government officials around the world to require that companies cease all marketing--including advertising, sponsorships and product placements in all media--of "sugar-laden" beverages to children under age 16.

It also calls for ceasing sales of all sweetened beverages, including sports drinks and fruit-flavored beverages and teas, in all public and private elementary, middle and high schools; limiting sponsorships promoting physical activity and health to contributions to blind trusts overseen by government agencies, for use in programs that do not feature corporate logos or brands; establishing a "modest" value-added tax on soft drinks (to be used by governments for physical activity and nutrition education programs and subsidizing the costs of fruits and vegetables); increasing promotion of "new, lower-sugar products," and selling existing high-sugar products in smaller portions.



According to CSPI Legal Director Bruce Silverglade, these demands are based on recommendations made by the World Health Organization in its 2004 "Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health"--which, he says, are also being used as a "blueprint" for nutrition initiatives by governments in a growing number of countries.

Coca-Cola and PepsiCo did not respond directly to the Drop Soda salvo, but Coca-Cola referred press to an official statement from the American Beverage Association (ABA). The ABA statement maintains that CSPI "is clearly more show than substance," and labels the Dump Soda campaign "another attempt by the CSPI to blame one product for a complex problem.

"Rather than pointing a finger at industry, it would be more effective if CSPI and its global counterparts worked on comprehensive solutions to bring about meaningful results," ABA argues, adding that the U.S. beverage industry "agrees that childhood obesity is a serious global issue" and has "stepped up to be a part of the solution" through various initiatives.

In the U.S., these include partnering with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation to develop national School Beverage Guidelines that remove "full-calorie" soft drinks from all schools and also cap beverage calories and portion sizes. In the first year of this agreement's three-year implementation plan, calories from beverages shipped to schools have declined by 41% and shipments of full-calorie soft drinks by 45%, and 35% of school contracts are in compliance, according to ABA.

The association also points out that in the U.S., the major beverage companies do not advertise full-calorie soft drinks on TV shows aimed primarily at children under 12, and follow the guidelines of the Children's Advertising Review Unit of the Council of Better Business Bureaus (CBBB).

Some beverage marketers, including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, have also signed on to the CBBB's new Children's Food and Beverage Initiative, which aims to increase the percentage of advertising for products that meet specific nutrition standards for children under 12, and ad messages that encourage good nutrition and healthy lifestyles.

Overall sales of soft drinks in the U.S. (excluding Wal-Mart) declined by 3.8% last year, according to IRI/AC Nielsen data.

"Though parents seem to be drinking soft drinks at about the same levels, there's no doubt that the percentage of children drinking them has been declining for about the past 10 years," says Harry Balzer, executive vice president for market research firm NPD Group. "It all comes down to what consumers do. Mothers are clearly concerned about what their children are consuming, and acting on this."

Outside the U.S., the Australian Beverages Council Ltd. issued a statement calling the Global Dump Soda Campaign a "PR nonsense exercise that does not take into account the commitments and progress already made by the beverage industry in Australia, Europe and North America." Tony Gentile, chief executive of the council, cited the "series of commitments" by the country's beverage industry already addressing "the role of non-alcoholic beverages and childhood obesity," which have been commended by the government and the country's health department.

Silverglade of CSPI--which last year dropped a planned lawsuit against major beverage makers in the U.S. after the voluntary agreement to phase sugar-containing soft drinks out of schools was reached, with the involvement of the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association--maintains that the Global Drop Soda Campaign is needed to ensure that multinational companies engage in best practices consistently throughout the world.

"These companies claim to have global commitments, but have really only responded in bits and pieces, in countries where there have been pressures to act in specific areas, such a labeling and marketing," he contends.

For instance, Silverglade says, "in Europe and most of the rest of the world," companies have agreed to take soft drinks out of primary and secondary schools, but not high schools; and whereas marketers do not advertise soft drinks to children under age 12 in the U.S., the agreed-upon standard in the U.K. calls for not advertising to children under age 16.

Furthermore, he maintains, multinationals are increasing marketing of traditional soft drinks to other parts of the world to make up for losses in this segment in the U.S.

In the U.S., he says, "the good news is that soft drink sales have been declining over the last few years, but the bad news is that sales of other drinks still high in calories, like energy drinks and diluted fruit juices, are being substituted."

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