A ‘Big’ Threat?
Sarah Theodore  
Nutrition watchdog groups seem irresistibly drawn to the soft drink industry, no matter what these companies do to balance healthful products and indulgent offerings. This month saw two reports that went as far as comparing soft drinks to “big tobacco,” and have industry watchers predicting more changes in the way products are marketed. The first is a Massachusetts lawsuit that has been threatened by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Public Health Advocacy Group and a number of other lawyers, some of whom were involved in the class action lawsuits against the tobacco industry 10 years ago.
The groups plan to seek class action status for a suit that claims that kids in school are captive audiences for marketers, and that soft drinks should be banned from schools for their contribution to obesity.
Susan Neely, president of the American Beverage Association was recently quoted on the issue as saying the suit is “trying to paint a bull’s eye on a particular product and pass it off as a meaningful solution to a complicated problem.” In response to the news, the ABA released a study that shows full-calorie soft drink consumption in schools has dropped 24 percent since 2002 while purchases of bottled water, diet soft drinks, 100 percent juice and sports drinks all have increased.
The second is a report from the Institute of Medicine, a government-chartered organization, which stated that food and beverage companies are using television ads to entice kids into eating and drinking unhealthful quantities. The institute called for food and beverage manufacturers, as well as restaurants, to change their advertising within two years, getting rid of cartoon characters in marketing and increasing advertising of healthful products… or have Congress step in and mandate the changes. While the food and advertising industries criticized the report, Advertising Age warned it could become “a watershed on the scale of the 1964 Surgeon General’s report on tobacco.”
The potential litigants in Massachusetts and the Institute of Medicine report fail to acknowledge the steps the industry already has taken, including self-imposed limits on sales in schools and marketing policies regarding children, as well as the wide range of products these companies actually offer, including bottled water, low-calorie products and fruit juice. PepsiCo, in my opinion, has done the best job of showing the industry’s ability to provide balance in drinking and snacking occasions with the Smart Spot campaign it rolled out this year.
Perhaps the new year will bring with it more solutions and less fingerpointing, but I wouldn’t bet on it. Like it or not — whether it’s fair or not — it seems certain there is a big battle ahead. BI
Sneak Peek
Beverage bottler of the year — Pepsi-Cola Bottling of New York
Beverage R&D — 2006 R&D survey
Category Focus — Juices & juice drinks
Packaging — Closure technology
Corporate profile — Heineken USA
Special report — Health & wellness trends
Beverage R&D — Flavor survey
Category Focus — Ready-to-drink coffee & tea