Coke on Soda Tax for Obesity: It's You, Not Us

The CEO of Coca-Cola argues lack of exercise, not soda, is to blame for obesity.

ByLauren Cox<br>abc News Medical Unit
October 08, 2009, 8:31 PM

Oct. 9, 2009&#151; -- The chief executive of the Coca-Cola Co. Thursday threw a jab into the fray about proposed soda taxes intended to curb obesity, charging that America's obesity problem is linked more to the nation's sedentary lifestyle than to sugary beverages.

But some dietitians and public health experts said many of his arguments hold less water than a can of coke.

In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece, CEO Muhtar Kent wrote, "In cities and states across America -- and even at the federal level -- this idea [of a soda tax] is getting increased attention despite its regressive nature and inherent illogic."

Along with examples of how a sedentary lifestyle contributes to weight gain, Kent also argued that two states that have soda taxes -- West Virginia and Arkansas -- also rank among the 10 worst states for obesity rates.

Doctors and public health experts agreed that soda is not the sole cause of obesity, but some people also say the tax is a good idea in the fight to curb obesity and raise money for health care programs.

"Would anybody expect the makers of Coke and Pepsi to support a tax on soda, no matter how solid the data was?" asked Dr. David Katz, director of the Prevention Research Center at the Yale University School of Medicine and medical contributor to ABC News. "I very much doubt the Op-Ed will change anybody's mind for that reason."

Indeed, the idea of a tax on sweetened beverages to encourage better beverage choices and curb obesity has gained traction in the past few years.

Public health leaders twice recommended a tax on sweetened beverages in April and, again, in September in the influential New England Medical Journal.

The idea was picked up earlier, in December 2008, by New York Gov. David Paterson and was endorsed by the Institute of Medicine, a nonprofit group that often advises the government on health issues.

Why Fight a Soda Tax?

Brand Republic, a United Kingdom marketing news Web site, reported Wednesday that Coca-Cola "is planning an advertising campaign to educate consumers about nutrition in an attempt to derail plans to introduce a soft drinks tax," a day before Kent's Wall Street Journal article appeared.

A Coca-Cola official declined to comment for this story.

In the article, however, Kent came out strong against the proposed taxes, repeatedly saying the beverage industry has become a target and that the proposed taxes demonized the industry.

"Sugar-sweetened beverages have been singled out in spite of the fact that soft drinks, energy drinks, sports drinks and sweetened bottled water combined contribute 5.5 percent of the calories in the average American diet," Kent argued in the article. "It's difficult to understand why the beverages we and others provide are being targeted as the primary cause of weight gain when 94.5 percent of caloric intake comes from other foods and beverages."

Katz of Yale said that such statistics, while technically accurate, were misleading.

"When they give a number like this, that's spread across the population," Katz said. "But that's not the way it works, I don't drink soda at all so that brings the number down. For a certain segment of the population, the segment that drinks a lot of soda, that percentage is much higher."

While one person might add an extra 150 calories to his or her daily intake with a can of soda, other people may be adding several hundred calories with several sodas a day, Katz said.

"Although I've been a supporter of the soda tax, I'm not that excited about it," said Katz, who worried that arguments about how no single unhealthy food caused obesity might lead everyone to try to exonerate each product.

"When they tell us that soda, not all by itself, is the cause to the epidemic of obesity; well, duh," Katz said. "It's time for us to say that everything that isn't part of the solution is part of the problem."

What About Taxes for Other Food?

In his piece, Kent implied that other foods were just around the corner for proposed taxes.

"We at the Coca-Cola company are committed to working with government and health organizations to implement effective solutions to address this problem [of obesity]," he wrote. "But a number of public-health advocates have already come up with what they think is the solution: heavy taxes on some routine foods and beverages that they have decided are high in calories."

Kelly Brownell of Yale University said that taxes on soda and soda alone are proposed for a reason: There's more science to link soda consumption to obesity.

"With something as controversial as a tax, you want to be on sound scientific ground," said Brownell, who was a leading author on the articles in the New England Journal of Medicine recommending a tax on soda.

Brownell called the science on sugar beverages "rock solid."

"Scientific studies show that the body doesn't do very well with liquid calories," Brownell said. "So, if you consume calories in liquid food, your body doesn't tend to recognize those calories.".

So if one chooses to add 200 extra calories to his or her lunch, Brownell said, that person would compensate and naturally eat a little less at dinner if those 200 calories were in solid form like pizza or ice cream. But if the 200 calories were in beverage form, the person would eat more later on.

Brownell said he isn't supporting a tax on diet soda because the science isn't that strong.

Keith-Thomas Ayoob, an associate professor in the department of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City, said tax or no, switching beverages may be an easy way to cut calories for some people.

Yale's Katz said, "This CEO has a point. The truth is people blame certain foods but, in truth, it's a lot of things. I think excess calories should be singled out, I don't care where they come from. For that, each person needs to look at what they're doing,"

Katz gave the example of a patient he counseled who drank seven sweetened iced teas a day. Once she cut it out, "she started losing weight like crazy."

"If someone is not drinking a lot of soda, cutting back isn't going to help them," he said. "But if they are, the thing about soda is that it's a very easy swap -- drink water or diet soda and it cuts way back on the calories."

ABC News Live

ABC News Live

24/7 coverage of breaking news and live events