Legal Challenge Possible Over Big Soda Ban

Would force beverage industry to "fight for its rights," says Coke exec

NEW YORK -- A senior executive with The Coca-Cola Co. has told the Associated Press in an interview that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's attempt to ban the sale of large sodas and other sugary drinks unfairly singles out and demonizes an industry and will do nothing to address the problem of obesity.

Steve Cahillane, president and CEO of the company's Coca-Cola Refreshments unit, told the news agency that the mayor's proposal is overly simplistic and that the complex issue of obesity requires a more sophisticated approach that touches on everything from diet and portion sizes to promoting exercise among children and providing more parks and recreation spaces.

"We're not putting our head in the sand and saying there's not an obesity epidemic in this country. There is," Cahillane said in Chicago. "But we believe that we can be part of the solution rather than be demonized and discriminated against."

Bloomberg proposed limiting portion sizes of nondiet sugary drinks to 16 ounces at New York City's restaurants, sidewalk carts, movie theaters and sports arenas (but not grocery and convenience stores), triggering blowback from critics who say the city is overstepping into life choices better left to individuals (see Related Content below for previous CSP Daily News coverage).

City officials say it is an attempt to fight America's obesity epidemic and cite research that also links sugary drinks to rising rates of diabetes and heart disease.

Businesses violating the rules would face fines of $200 per failed inspection. The proposal is expected to pass a vote by the city's Board of Health, whose members are appointed by Bloomberg.

Under Bloomberg, New York has also outlawed trans fats in restaurant food and forced chain restaurants to post calorie counts on menus.

A spokesperson for the mayor, Samantha Levine, said in a statement that the city has launched more than 20 initiatives to combat obesity.

"The fact remains, however, that sugary beverages are a key driver of the obesity crisis that is killing 5,800 New Yorkers and costing the city $4 billion annually," she said.

Cahillane said it would be tricky and expensive for small businesses to comply with the new proposal. It would also force the beverage industry into a position where it had to "fight for its rights."

He did not rule out the possibility of mounting a legal challenge if the proposal passes.

"We're going to look at all of our options to protect our business, our rights to do business and our rights not to be discriminated against," he said.

The industry has struggled in recent years as more health-conscious Americans have shifted away from sugary sodas toward bottled water and sports drinks, said the report. Sensitive to that, companies have been fighting to win back consumers with more choices.

"We're offering more and more diets and lights and we're spending more and more of our money advertising diets and lights to give people a choice to bring their calorie count down," Cahillane said.

Atlanta-based Coca-Cola is set to start testing mid-calorie versions of its Fanta and Sprite products in select cities in coming weeks. In the past few years, the company has offered its drinks in a variety of smaller sizes, including a 7.5-ounce "mini-can."

Cahillane called on Bloomberg to instead work with Coca-Cola and others in the industry to find other ways of addressing obesity, such as helping build and improve parks to encourage children to be more active.

On Wednesday, the company announced an $8.4 million program to promote active, healthy living around the world. In the U.S., Coca-Cola will spend $5 million to place 100 new fitness centers in schools around the country over the next five years.

"Obesity is a complex issue," Cahillane said. "To the extent that anybody says there's a simple solution to it. ... I think fundamentally misleads people."