Are soda industry CSR campaigns bad for public health?

By Nathan Gray

- Last updated on GMT

Are soda industry CSR campaigns bad for public health?

Related tags: Soft drink, Corporate social responsibility, Obesity

Expensive and elaborate CSR campaigns used by the soda industry, focused on consumers rather than on the corporation, echo tactics employed by big tobacco firms, argue experts. 

Strong public health campaigns are needed to help educate the public and policymakers about the dangers of both sugary beverages and the misleading industry corporate social responsibility campaigns that distract from their products' health risks, suggest a group of experts writing in PLoS Medicine​.

The Policy Forum article (found here​) examines prominent campaigns from industry leaders PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, that according to the authors, have embraced corporate social responsibility (CSR) with elaborate, expensive and multinational campaigns similar to those used by tobacco companies.

However, unlike tobacco CSR campaigns, soda industry CSR pushes – such as PepsiCo’s ‘Refresh Project’ and Coca-Cola’s ‘Live Positively’ campaign – explicitly target young people and aim to increase sales, they say.

“Soda companies use CSR to tout their concern for the health and well-being of youth while simultaneously cultivating brand loyalty,” ​argue the experts – led by Andrew Cheyne from the Berkeley Media Studies Group, USA.

The expert group adds that it is ‘clear’ that such campaigns reinforce the idea that obesity is caused by customers' ‘bad’ behavior, thus “diverting attention from soda's contribution to rising obesity rates.”

"For example, CSR campaigns that include the construction and upgrading of parks for youth who are at risk for diet-related illnesses keep the focus on physical activity, rather than on unhealthful foods and drinks. Such tactics redirect the responsibility for health outcomes from corporations onto its consumers, and externalize the negative effects of increased obesity to the public.”

Reacting to such comments, the British Soft Drinks Association (BDSA) said there is ‘no comparison’ to be drawn between tobacco and soft drinks.

No comparison

“Tobacco is harmful in any quantity, and any reduction in consumption is a positive step for health,”​ said the BDSA. “In the case of food and drink, it is the imbalance between calorie intake and calorie expenditure that is the cause of obesity and not the intake of calories as such, still less the intake of calories from any particular food or drink.”

“These two situations are entirely different and you can’t compare the two.”

The association reiterated that the root cause of obesity is eating more calories in the diet than you burn up in exercise – “which means that soft drinks companies are acting responsibly when they promote the importance of a balanced diet and an active lifestyle.” 

Increasing pressure

Cheyne and his colleagues noted that while soda companies may not face the level of social stigmatisation or regulatory pressure that confronts ‘Big Tobacco’ – concern over soda and the obesity epidemic is growing.

In response to health concerns about products, the researchers argue that soda companies have launched comprehensive CSR initiatives sooner than tobacco companies and they echo the tobacco industry's use of CSR as a means to focus responsibility on consumers rather than the corporation, bolster the companies' and products' popularity, and to prevent regulation.

“As CSR campaigns can improve a firm's standing with the public and policymakers, they are potentially a powerful mechanism to forestall regulation,”​ said the experts.

While the Refresh Project and Live Positively have not stated such goals outright—and we have no cache of internal soda industry documents to investigate for such explicit rationales—the campaigns employ the very tactics that companies use to influence the public and policymakers.”

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