Soda Giants Pledge to Cut Calories, ABA Tilts on Messaging

While not a complete capitulation of their efforts to disassociate soda consumption and links to obesity, the recently announced pledge by the world’s largest soft drink manufacturers to reduce beverage calories in the American diet represents a striking shift in communication.

Announced at the 10th annual Clinton Global Initiative meeting, The Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo and the Dr Pepper Snapple Group have jointly agreed to a goal of decreasing beverage calorie consumption per American nationally by 20 percent by 2025. The companies will follow through on the commitment, which is backed by The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, founded by the American Heart Association and Clinton Foundation, through a mix of new packaging, marketing and distribution designed to get smaller sized drinks and zero- or low-calorie beverages into the hands of more consumers.

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and American Beverage Association CEO Susan Neely

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton and American Beverage Association CEO Susan Neely

“Today, we announce a profoundly important commitment to combat the obesity epidemic by cutting calories in America’s soft drinks,” former U.S. President Bill Clinton said at the Global Initiative meeting.

The soda giants have also agreed to add calorie counts and “calorie awareness” to more than 3 million company-owned vending machines, fountain dispensers and retail coolers, according to a press release from by the American Beverage Association (ABA), a trade group representing the interests of many beverage manufacturers, including Coke, Pepsi and Dr Pepper Snapple. Furthermore, the companies will launch marketing and educational initiatives in communities “where there has been less interest in and/or access to” healthier beverage options. The strategy will include and calls to consume more bottled water and incentives to promote purchase of reduced calorie drinks.

“This is the single-largest voluntary effort by an industry to help fight obesity and leverages our companies’ greatest strengths in marketing, innovation and distribution,” Susan K. Neely, President and CEO, ABA, said in the release.

It’s a remarkable turn for the ABA, which continues to fight tooth and nail against the establishment of new soda taxes and calls to ban large-format containers of highly sweetened drinks, including the so-called –and ultimately unsuccessful — “Bloomberg Ban,” all of which are intended to curb sugar and calorie consumption.

Contrast Neely’s statement with the ABA’s often repeated messaging that soda is not to blame for the obesity crisis in America, including a June blog post titled “Myth Versus Fact: Soft Drink Consumption.” At the time, the organization wrote that “all sugar-sweetened beverages account for only 6 percent of calories in the average American’s diet, according to government data,” and while it noted that “obesity is a complex issue,” the ABA stated that “focusing on one small piece of the diet is not going to solve the public health challenge.”

Notably, the beverage companies will, in conjunction with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, retain an independent, third-party evaluator, “to track progress and interim benchmarks toward their commitments.” Alliance has in the past worked with Coke, Pepsi and Dr Pepper Snapple on an initiative to remove full-calorie sodas from schools and add healthier beverages in their place, a move that contributed to a 90 percent reduction in calories from beverages shipped to schools from 2004 to 2010.

“This is really important,” Clinton said of the new commitment. “This strategy can sustainably lower the aggregate weight of the country in a way that will dramatically improve health outcomes, reduce the risk of obesity and diabetes and its attendant consequences, and, in particular cases, can help us to reverse type 2 diabetes.”