The System Linking Junk Science and Bad Press

A couple of summers ago, I was coming off a bicycle ride over New York’s Triboro Bridge from the athletic fields on Randall’s Island that had me feeling virtuous about the lunch buffet I was about to gorge on. That’s when I encountered a billboard from the city’s new “Are you pouring on the pounds?” campaign. Talk about buzz kill: the outdoor ad advised me: “You have to walk the 2 ½ MILES from Randall’s Island Park to the Apollo Theater to burn off the calories from ONE 32-oz. SPORTS DRINK.”  It contained a handy map showing just how far that was.

Given my line of work, I should have realized that, for all the joys of walking and cycling around New York, those activities really don’t burn all that many calories. Somewhere deep inside I’m sure I was aware of that. The insight was still startling, though, in the way public service ads like that are intended to be startling. (One of the more in-your-face iterations of that campaign depicts the soda being poured from a PET bottle turning to a blob of fat in the glass.) But it was based on extensive scientific evidence that shows that, as exemplary and necessary as exercise is, it’s insufficient to maintain a healthy weight in the absence of restraint on the calorie-intake side. Better to avoid the junk calories present in sodas and sports drinks in the first place.

It’s hard to judge how effective the campaign proved – there are still plenty of morbidly obese people walking the streets and riding the subways of my city, soft drinks often in hand, and in recent years increasingly desperate city officials have been resorting to more extreme measures like portion limits at movie theaters and proposals for soda taxes. But that message clearly doesn’t sit well with Coca-Cola, which has built huge businesses in categories like soda and sports drinks that the campaign was singling out.

GEBNSo, as The New York Times reported in an exposé a few weeks ago, the company decided to quietly marshall its own cadre of experts to tout the benefits of exercise over abstinence or restraint as the solution to the problem. It has been offering financial and logistical support to a new non-profit organization called the Global Energy Balance Network that promotes the view that Americans are too fixated on what they’re consuming when they should worry more about getting enough exercise. “Most of the focus in the popular media and in the scientific press is, ‘Oh they’re eating too much, eating too much, eating too much’ — blaming fast food, blaming sugary drinks and so on,” the group’s vice president, an exercise scientist named Steven Blair, says in a video announcing the organization, as the Times noted. “And there’s really virtually no compelling evidence that that, in fact, is the cause.”

As one who spends some of my free time volunteering for an organization, Transportation Alternatives, that attempts to make it easier and more enjoyable for New Yorkers to walk and bike around the city, I do believe that obesity is, in part, an urban planning issue. In designing overly car-reliant cities, we’ve created massive disincentives to people using their own power to get to even nearby destinations. Walking, cycling, taking stairs – no question, those all can make a meaningful difference to our health and well-being. Exercise does matter. But “virtually no compelling evidence” that we’re overeating? It’s a laughable assertion, except it doesn’t seem quite so laughable coming out of the mouths of presumably objective scientists.

Coke’s tactic was straight out of the playbook described in a compelling book, Merchants of Doubt, by Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway, and subsequent documentary by Robert Kenner that related efforts over several decades by a loosely knit cadre of scientists worked to head off concerns about tobacco, acid rain, DDT and global warming. The faces are different in Coke’s effort, but the tactics are the same: to use seemingly objective scientific voices to plant just enough of a seed of doubt as to undermine a coordinated public policy response to a problem.

So the Times did well to highlight the issue, in the process prompting the organization to finally identify Coke as a funding source. (It claimed not doing so had been an oversight.) The story seems to have been widely picked up, and news outlets are reminding people of other steps Coke has taken to protect its soft drink franchises, such as paying dieticians to promote soda as a healthy snack. The scrutiny is certainly deserved, but the shocked responses of some seem a bit disingenuous to me.

After all, we live in a country where the political process has been pretty well hijacked by monied interests: as I write this, most among a broad field of Republican presidential candidates seem to tailoring their platforms to the priorities of a relative handful of deep-pocketed donors rather than to their prospective constituents. Whether they represent effective policy or not, proposed soda taxes are blown out of the water by media blitzes that may equate to hundreds or even thousands of dollars for every “no” vote won in a referendum.  And for all the rhetoric about an overactive administration, our timid, underfunded, politically pressured government agencies have mainly abdicated their responsibilities of watching out for the health and safety of our citizens, leaving class-action litigators to fill the void. I won’t disagree that many of those are bottom-feeders engaged in legalized extortion, so it says something about our system that they’ve come to represent a rare counterbalance to the more egregious tactics of marketers of foods, beverages and nutritional supplements.

Where does this all lead? I’m actually willing to take a bit of heart from the fact that the Big 3 soda companies seem to finally be getting serious about building their portfolios of healthier products, even as they do what they think they need to do to keep the bottom from falling out of their core businesses.  As I write this, Coke has just made a sizable investment in Suja Juice, and Dr Pepper Snapple finally is writing some checks to early-stage brands like Bai and Body Armor, which represent at least a modest upgrade over some of the established brands they’re challenging. Pepsi for some time has been highlighting the fact that its healthier brands already collectively amount to tens of billions in annual sales, and it’s growing its own participation in emerging categories. To the extent these companies can figure out how to prosper from their own portfolios of healthier beverages, it should reduce the need to engage in subterfuges like the ones the Times described to poison the debate.

Longtime beverage-watcher Gerry Khermouch is executive editor of Beverage Business Insights, a twice-weekly e-newsletter covering the nonalcoholic beverage sector.