Obesity in America: Whose Shoulders Should the Weight of the Nation Rest On?


The obesity debate continues to dominate the public conversation in America. Policymakers and nutritionists and bureaucrats pondered “The Weight of the Nation” at a federal-government conference this week while the four-part HBO series of the same name that debuts on Monday. PepsiCo and Coca-Cola are trying to position their brands as part of the solution, via the lobby group where they’re the 800 pound gorilla members at any meeting.

The American Beverage Association’s “Delivering Choices” campaign has already launched on TV to promote “how America’s beverage companies are making it easier to choose the drink that’s right for you — with more choices, smaller portions, fewer calories and clear calorie labels.” (The sub-text: consumers have choices, and should take personal responsbility for their weight and health.)

The campaign is now getting more targeted with local marketing in the Big Apple. A New York-centric website talks up the Delivering Choices platform while promoting good works by the ABA’s members in the city, such as Dr Pepper Snapple Group funding playgrounds in Brooklyn, and the recent Great Recycle event staged by Coca-Cola’s Honest Tea brand in Times Square. Facebook and Twitter marketing are reinforcing the messaging.

Now the ABA is expanding its NYC push to the subway system, with a new campaign placing posters on trains and in the stations — New York being the same market where the mayor, Michael Bloomberg, has been promoting a healthy agenda, including a PSA campaign depicting their beverages with globs of fat and packets of sugar.[more]

Although rivals in the cola wars, the brands are allies when it comes to getting the word out. Among other things, the companies’ New York campaigning is a counterpunch against the city’s subway-based anti-soft-drink campaign, which an ABA spokesman told Bloomberg is “discriminatory and singles out one product out of an array of foods and beverages, all of which contribute equally to this very complex issue.”

PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and the association have spent as much as $70 million on lobbying and issue ads since the beginning of 2009, according to the consumer health watchdog Center for Science and the Public Interest.

All of that fighting back by the companies apparently is doing some good on at least one level: The effort by the federal government to severely limit the marketing of soft drinks and some other foods to children appears to be kaput, Ad Age reports. (This conclusion reached even as Massachusetts is the latest market to ban cupcake-laden bake sale fundraisers at schools because too many kids are obese.)

“It’s probably time to move on,” FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz told Congress recently, following up with a letter to the Wall Street Journal last week in which he said “the commission does not support legislation restricting food advertising to children.”

Even so, the Interagency Working Group of the FTC and other federal regulatory agencies is still working on what it calls “voluntary” guidelines by which food companies would only advertise foods with low levels of sodium, fat and sugar to kids. Leading companies note they’ve already drastically cut back on such marketing anyhow and insist that “voluntary” guidelines become suggested standards and then de facto mandates.

Meanwhile, as the entire nation confronts the still-growing obesity problem, the federal Institute of Medicine has just released a report concluding that 69% of U.S. adults are obese. The IOM sees this as a wake-up call to America that the nation must take far-reaching steps to address the obesity epidemic, including possibly instituting a nationwide tax on sugary sodas as well as changing farming policies and even zoning laws.

The report, titled (bluntly) “America’s Obesity Crisis,” was released in time for HBO’s series, in a timely tie-in with that high-profile program launch. Fighting such efforts would take a lot more than posters and playgrounds to combat.


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