Soft drink makers pit public health advocates against "moderation moms" and "hard-working families"

With numerous studies linking soft drinks to rising rates of obesity and type 2 diabetes, especially in children, reducing consumption of sugary drinks would appear to have obvious benefits for public health. Limiting access to soft drinks at school has been shown to reduce children’s overall consumption of such beverages, and raising the price of soft drinks through new taxes would likely reduce consumption among adults too.

Iowa native Susan Neely will lead the opposition to policies aimed at getting Americans to drink less pop, soda or sugary juice and sports drinks. In the Sunday Des Moines Register, Philip Brasher profiled Neely, who has been president and chief executive of the American Beverage Association since 2005. I recommend reading his whole article, but I will comment on a few key points after the jump.

The American Beverage Association represents soft drink manufacturers, and Brasher explains why they have a lot riding on public policy this year:

Neely and her industry are trying to prevent Congress or the Obama administration from imposing more stringent restrictions on what the campuses can put in school vending machines. Congress is due this year to revise the rules for school lunches and other child nutrition programs. A key issue is whether the Agriculture Department will get the authority to regulate what can be sold in school vending machines.

Some critics also are calling for taxes on sugary soft drinks to curb consumption.

Neely’s claim to fame is helping forge an agreement in 2006 between soft drink makers and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (a joint initiative of the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation):

The guidelines focus on reducing the number of calories children consume through beverages, with the understanding that balancing calories consumed with calories burned is the best way to achieve a healthy lifestyle.

The guidelines provide a broad range of lower-calorie and smaller-portion beverage choices: 100% juice, low-fat milk and bottled water in elementary and middle schools, with the addition of diet sodas, sports drinks and low-calorie teas in high schools. The guidelines remove full-calorie soft drinks from all schools.

Brasher’s article quotes a longtime colleague who says Neely got the soft drink makers to agree to a “huge culture change” by adopting these voluntary guidelines, because they limited sales of leading brand names. I don’t see the guidelines as a big concession from beverage makers, because they can still profit from selling their products in schools. Also, I don’t consider diet sodas and sports drinks particularly healthy regular choices for teenagers. Brasher notes that “the Institute of Medicine, an arm of the National Academy of Sciences, recommends limiting [sports drinks] to student athletes after their workouts.”

Anyway, I found a different part of Neely’s biography more revealing. During the early 1990s, she worked in the health insurance industry’s trade group and helped create the infamous “Harry and Louise” ad campaign that attacked President Clinton’s health-care reform initiative. Speaking of the Harry and Louise ads, Neely told Brasher,

“I learned that it’s possible to take an issue and a point of view and develop broad-based support for that point of view,” she said.

For those who are too young to remember Harry and Louise, the ads developed “broad-based support” by focusing on the allegedly dire consequences that health care reform would have on average working families. Nowhere did they mention the potential impact on the corporations that funded the ad campaign.

Speaking about proposals intended to reduce soft drink sales, Neely is careful not to complain about how those policies would hurt the bottom line of American Beverage Association member companies. Instead, she emphasizes that many factors contribute to obesity and that soft drinks can be part of a healthy lifestyle, including plenty of activity and hydration. She also strikes a populist tone in her response to a recent commentary in the New England Journal of Medicine:

“We agree that obesity is a serious and complex problem. It defies both science and common sense, however, to think singling out one product as a unique contributor to obesity will make a dent in the problem.” Moreover, [Neely] argued: “Taxing these products won’t make an ounce of difference in reducing obesity. But these taxes will inflict serious pain to hard-working families, who face higher costs at the store and the risk of losing their job all in the middle of a devastating recession.”

The authors of the New England Journal of Medicine piece, Yale professor Kelly Brownell and New York City health commissioner Thomas Frieden, are advocating a significant tax on soft drinks precisely because of evidence that

people are likely to cut back on consumption of junk foods and drinks as their prices rise even as purchases of milk, bread or flour hold relatively steady in the face of escalating prices.

One analysis by Brownell’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity indicated that for every 10 percent rise in the price of sugary drinks, consumption of those drinks falls by 7.8 percent. In their new commentary, Brownell and Frieden point to industry data that suggest there could be an even stronger push back: that every percent rise in cost translates into at least as large a percentage drop in consumption.

I understand the argument that significant soft drink taxes would be regressive, but so are cigarette taxes, and we accept those as a proven way to reduce smoking.

Another theme running through Brasher’s profile was Neely’s desire to cite her “experience as a mom” as the basis for her opposition to soft drink limits. She tells Brasher,

“If you eliminate one product, there will be another (unhealthful) product […] My children need to understand how to make good choices.”

And in a sidebar to the article:

As the soft drink industry’s chief advocate, Susan Neely developed guidelines that called for eliminating sugar-sweetened beverages from elementary and middle schools. But that doesn’t mean she doesn’t let her children have them at home – as after-school treats. Bottled water goes with lunch.

Neely said she regulates her kids’ consumption and tries to model good nutrition for them.

A pollster who has worked with her since Harry and Louise days told Brasher that Neely is

an effective leader for the soft-drink business because she understands a key audience: “moderation moms,” relatively affluent women who want to protect their kids’ health while still letting them have some drinks and sweets.

Judging from the number of ads for beauty and health products “invented by a mom!”, Americans must have very positive associations about mothers’ wisdom and expertise. And naturally, Neely is going to sound more persuasive as a mom trying to help her kids make good choices than as the chief executive of the soft drink industry’s lobbying arm.

The idea that soft drinks can be part of a healthy diet and lifestyle is a major theme on the American Beverage Association‘s website and has been a staple of industry messaging for a long time. For instance, an article about the role of soft drinks in obesity and type 2 diabetes among children includes this passage for balance:

“All foods and beverages can play an important role in a healthy diet if they’re consumed in moderation and also with regular exercise,” said Tracey Halliday, a spokesperson for the American Beverage Association.

Here’s my problem with the “moderation mom” argument. Parents make their own choices about where to take a hard line and where to be lenient. In my household we’re relaxed about bedtimes and snacking between meals, but we’re very strict about television and drinks other than water or milk. I respect other parents who pick different battles, but I want public policy to reflect what’s good for public health. In other words, let moms and dads be “moderate” about sports drinks or sodas on their own time, without giving kids easy access to unhealthy beverages in schools.

If the school nutrition program or other public policies are intended to reduce consumption of drinks with no nutritional value, then let’s do what has been shown to reduce consumption: making soft drinks unavailable in schools and/or raising taxes on such products.

Please share any relevant thoughts in this thread.

UPDATE: I cross-posted this diary at La Vida Locavore, where Jill Richardson (formerly known as OrangeClouds115) raised an important point:

Here’s my response to Neely   (4.00 / 1)

cuz believe me – I’ve been watching her sweet talk the Senate and receive praise from Senators like Harkin and Dodd. It’s not JUST what you serve the kids in school. It’s the marketing. They are still getting exposed to name brands with the “healthier” beverages being marketed in schools, and then they go home when the bell rings and they drink stuff at home too. You might only have 100% fruit juice at school but the same brand could have several products that are 10% juice, 90% high fructose corn syrup in the grocery store. You might have 10 oz serving sizes in school but 20 oz in the grocery store. And once you’ve got the kid loyal to your brand – AND believing that brand has the school’s stamp of approval, they’re gonna buy it in school AND out of school.

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