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What Coke could really do to tackle obesity

Coca Cola is no-one’s idea of a health food – and to be fair to them, Coke is not promoted as one, either. However, recently Coke’s move into being ‘part of the solution’ to the obesity crisis facing the nation has raised a few eyebrows.

Coke says it is ‘joining the front line’ in the fight against obesity by offering more smaller portion sizes, offering more low-kilojoule drinks, putting nutritional information in more places such as vending machines, and ‘supporting physical activity programs’.

There’s nothing wrong with any of this – it can’t do any harm and no doubt it makes quite sound business sense, too. Perhaps it will encourage some people to switch to low-kJ drinks. Perhaps that will help some people lose weight. But I do wonder whether this is really the front line of the obesity battle. It has been said this is really a marketing strategy, designed to fend off criticism or calls for regulation on sugary drinks in the future.

What frustrated me about the general debate I heard and read about Coke’s ‘business commitments’ to fighting obesity was that inevitably it degenerated into an argument about regulation versus personal choice. People who questioned Coke’s motivation were promptly labeled the ‘fun police’ and in favour of the ‘nanny state’ – and when those words get mentioned, in my experience, all sensible debate goes out the window. In fact, what this is really about is one company’s voluntary strategy, they say, to join the fight against obesity. What never got mentioned – at least not that I heard – was some more effective strategies Coke could look at, if they really wanted to tackle obesity head-on.

We’ve been talking about this at Healthy Food Guide. We are not sure about regulating the sale of unhealthy food, but that’s not what this is about. We’ve had a bit of a think, and here are some suggestions for alternative ‘business commitments’ Coke could make, which we think would really make a start to help fight obesity. This might even encourage other companies to do something, too. Some ideas:

  • Take out all sugar-sweetened drinks from dairies near schools. Even better, take out everything except water.
     
  • Expand the successful Sprite initiative in McDonalds by replacing all sugary Coke, Fanta and fruit drinks with zero-kJ versions. For the past five years or so, all Sprite sold in McDonald’s has been Sprite Zero – why not go all the way and make it all drinks? (Although we note that zero-calorie drinks which still taste sweet bring their own set of problems.)
     
  • Stop selling larger ‘single-serve’ bottles of Coke and other drinks. A 600ml bottle is likely to be treated as one serving, no matter how many the label says it serves.
     
  • Or reduce the size of all single-serve drinks – including sports drinks, fruit drinks and iced teas – to 250ml.
     
  • Expand Coke’s stated policy of not marketing to kids under 12, to kids under 18 years.

We’re not sure about the business wisdom of adopting any of these ideas. But perhaps the goodwill they’d generate by being seen to be genuinely doing something meaningful might give a sales boost in the long term. And perhaps it would help create demand for different healthy alternatives that Coke could develop.

What do you think? Have you got some ideas for Coke? Share your suggestions here.

First published: Aug 2013



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