Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (And Winning)
By Marion Nestle
Review by David Wineberg
From the woman who told The New Yorker: “The best thing Pepsi could do for worldwide obesity would be to go out of business.” comes the ultimate, complete explanation of why sodas and the firms behind them are bad, who is doing what about it, and how you can help move it all along. Marion Nestle has long been the rational, thorough and fair rapporteur of food crime. Soda Politics is a standalone compendium of her personal knowledge and direct and indirect experience in the battle to corral it.
As with tobacco, soda makers know to start ‘em young. Kids meals come with sodas by default. A child’s portion is 12 ounces –their new normal. Big Soda has been paying schools a pittance for “exclusive pouring rights”, plastering the campuses of even elementary schools with dispensing machines, posters and signs – not just for their drinks, but for their even more unhealthy snack foods. It’s the kids’ normal environment. For this, the school gets $2 per child. $4 for highschoolers. Nestle calls this an unprecedented attack on schools. Interestingly, kids who aren’t allowed sodas at school don’t then go home and guzzle them to make up the deficit. They can live without, and if we could simply substitute the default drink, everything would improve.
Despite the “voluminous, consistent and compelling research”, Big Soda maintains there is no direct link to all the new obesity and diabetes we see here, and in every nation they invade. In the USA, the amount of sugar they sell works out to 13 teaspoons for every man woman and child – per day. But then, some theaters sell a 44 ounce “medium”.
The soda companies recognize that health advocacy has become the single biggest threat to profits. And that the Big Tobacco playbook is not enough. So while they still claim soda is beneficial and limiting it will have no effect on obesity, they are also busy weaving themselves into the landscape, donating money to all kinds of nonprofits, paying off scientists and politicians, and ensuring that pretty much anyone who might bring harm to their bottom line has been the recipient of their largesse at some point. For example, Nestle says the president of the 16th World Congress of Food Science and Technology cancelled a debate on the causes of childhood obesity explicitly because it might drive away food company sponsors. It’s that overt. It’s that saturated.
Big Soda also enjoys some success from all the pop-up (fake) grassroots groups they set up wherever anyone tries to rein them in. Soda is, they claim “capitalism in a bottle” and no blow is too low to shame it. So they pay locals to march in protest over proposed sales taxes, or portion caps. They create websites and petitions allegedly from locals who would grieve over such horrors.
I particularly appreciate Nestle’s “translation” of corporatespeak in the many lists of goals, activities, and principles the companies espouse publicly, seemingly daily. She dismisses “Corporate Social Responsibility” as a self evident conflict. If our aims were aligned, it would be automatic. That it is such big deal shows the inherent conflict between their goals and society’s needs.
In some ways, Soda Politics reminds me of the Opium Wars, in which the huge multinationals of the day forced the Chinese to buy and consume Indian opium. They got the British government to fund whole wars to make them take it. Today, Big Soda spends millions fighting any hint of a sales tax, bottle deposit, cap on serving sizes, advertising to children, the default drink with a fast food meal or any effort to impose healthy logic. Their strategy has been to get everyone to consume more every day (“share of stomach”), and nothing and no one can be allowed to stand in their way.
The good news is that people recognize the nonsense. Soda is in a long term decline in the USA. More and more groups, towns and states are leaning towards regulation and taxation. Soda Politics collects the successes and the failures to help anyone wanting to carry the torch in their own community. It’s all presented sensibly, rationally and usefully in this one valuable, usable volume.
Editor's note: This review has been published with the permission of David Wineberg. Like what you read? Subscribe to the SFRB's free daily email notice so you can be up-to-date on our latest articles. Scroll up this page to the sign-up field on your right.