The idea that America’s expanding waistline warns of a permanent obesity epidemic has prompted New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg to propose a ban on the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces at restaurants, movie theaters and street carts. Much like New York’s smoking ban, initially derided and later copied around the world, Bloomberg is hoping to send a message.
The ban could not have come at a worse time for the beverage industry, as soda consumption has already witnessed a sharp decline over the last ten years. Meanwhile, the industry has had to grapple with a steady stream of negative messages in the media signaling that sugary beverages are a key driver of the obesity crisis, thus contributing to rising health care costs. This presents a serious risk for Coke and Pepsi’s businesses, which rely heavily on their flagship brands.
Coca-Cola was quick to engage its public relations machine to reframe the debate, highlighting that over the last decade, while obesity was rising, caloric intake from carbonated beverages was slumping, a sentiment that found placement in some prominent media outlets. What’s more, the industry’s messaging was shepherded by critics who assailed the proposal as a “nanny state” overreach of government power.
Yet, despite Coca-Cola and PepsiCo’s PR strategy, the beverage industry was shouted down by the media and public health experts sympathetic to the notion of a large-soda ban, much like they rally behind taxes on soda. Further, legal analysts ventured that drink makers face an uphill battle in the courts if they mount a legal challenge to obstruct the initiative.
While the media are decidedly behind the ban, that sentiment may not be shared by the audience. During an interview with Mayor Bloomberg on NBC’s “Today” show, anchor Matt Lauer revealed an online poll that found 83% of respondents concluded that the ban would not solve the obesity problem.
Nevertheless, the beverage behemoths will likely have to operate in a media environment that blames sugary sodas for the U.S.’s rising obesity rates.
For more background, read The Wall Street Journal Story, “Sugar Ban Stirs Up New York”