A Step Too Far

Coca-Cola, other beverage-makers take steps to avoid further soda bans

CHICAGO -- The largest beverage-maker in the world isn't prepared to step into court to fight back New York City's recent ban on the sale of fountain beverages larger than 16 ounces. It is, however, willing to lend support to those who are fighting the ban, and it is offering up obesity-fighting programs in other cities to avoid similar bans there.

"We believe obesity is a big problem," Mel Landis, Coca-Cola Refreshments chief customer officer, told CSP Daily News in an exclusive interview. "What we also believe, though, is there are good ways to get after obesity and there are ways that are not effective. We don't believe regulation, unfair taxes, bans on things are a great way to get after it."

As an alternative, Coca-Cola and other major beverage manufacturers recently partnered with the cities of Chicago and San Antonio on anti-obesity programs that should prevent a beverage ban or new tax.

"We're partnering with [these cities] to figure out ways to get better education and to get people more active," Landis said. "We're going to get better education in these particular cities by expanding front-of-pack labeling to now include our vending machines."

Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr Pepper Snapple Group worked together with the American Beverage Association (ABA) to develop the vending initiative.

"We're very active in these communities trying to find a way to get people more active," Landis said. "So whether it's refurbishing parks or working in schools, we're open to doing any number of things with government as well as other nongovernmental organizations and anyone else that wants to get after the issue in a real way."

In the city program, Chicago will compete against the city workers from San Antonio for a $5 million grant from the ABA to see which workforce is healthier. The nationwide soda lobbying group will also pay $1,000 to individual workers who meet as-yet-unspecified health-care goals, according to a report in the Chicago Tribune.

"I believe firmly in personal responsibility," Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel told the newspaper. "I believe in competition, and I believe in cash rewards for people that actually make progress in managing their health care."

Since New York City adopted a rule in September barring many types of businesses--though not convenience stores--from selling sugary drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces, Coca-Cola has heard from many retailers looking for support, according to Landis.

"We've had as many convenience and drug customers"--those not affected directly by the ban--"come join us in this battle as we've had restaurants that are impacted," Landis said. New York City Mayor Mike Bloomberg "started with fountain drinks in places that serve food because he could, because that's what he could control. But I think most businesses view this as a step too far in terms of regulating certain categories."

Does Landis expect other cities to join in the beverage ban?

"I don't know. We would hope that the model you see in Chicago and San Antonio would be a model that more people would choose to participate with us rather than go down the other path," he said. "We will continue to work with ABA and NACS and the other industry forums to try to get the message out there. We're willing to make investments in any number of places, but we don't believe that allowing government to step in and ban or regulate certain channels or certain brands is a good place to go."

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