A new kind of cola war

Happiness doesn't come in a red can. Obesity does.

That's the tag line from a commercial that will begin airing soon in the Baltimore area, and it's a not-so-subtle attack on Coca-Cola mounted by a group of local health advocates including Howard County's Horizon Foundation, the Maryland State Medical Society (MedChi), the American Heart Association and People Acting Together in Howard (PATH).


The ad is a parody of a Coke campaign that features people handing out bottles of cola to strangers around the world in an uplifting, music-filled celebration. The new version, which takes a similar feel-good tack, shows green-shirted volunteers dispensing healthy drinks — mostly bottled water with or without flavoring — and in some cases, confiscating a Coke.

The criticism of sugary drinks shouldn't take too many people by surprise, particularly in Howard County where there's been a high-profile effort to remove non-diet soft drinks from vending machines in schools and other government offices as part of an effort to fight childhood obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other ills. But to see the criticism so personalized at one company — particularly one as iconic as Coca-Cola — may give pause.


Yet how else to get the public's attention? As the ad campaign's creators point out, Coca-Cola spends hundreds of millions of dollars each year promoting its soft drinks — far more than it spends advertising its healthier choices like fruit juice, low-calorie teas or water. Health advocates are calling on the company to reverse that and spend more on marketing healthful products and less on those linked to obesity and disease.

They have a point. Sugary drinks are the source of more than half the added sugar in the diets of children between the ages of 12 and 17, according to the Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Empty calories are empty calories whether they come for food, candy or drinks, but soda can be particularly problematic because it becomes a daily ritual as ingrained in a child's life as brown bag lunches and "mystery meat" in the school cafeteria. Pre-teens are especially vulnerable, a circumstance worsened by the presence of addictive caffeine in many sugary drinks.

That obesity among children has risen at an alarming rate over the last several decades (one out of three U.S. children are considered obese) can't be disputed. Nor can anyone contest the extraordinary popularity of soft drinks among the young — or claim that drinking 300 calories with zero nutrition doesn't pose adverse health consequences. But parents are fighting an uphill battle against the big beverage companies and their enormous marketing campaigns.

Coca-Cola is by no means unique in its practices, but singling it out is what is going to get the public's attention, and attention is what this effort needs. "Howard County Unsweetened" and its piddling $40,000 advertising campaign probably won't scare Coca-Cola into changing its ways, but the commercial should be an eye-opener for the rest of us. Sugary drinks are not merely theoretically bad for children and adults. We all see it every day — that cola in the familiar red and white can that has become so omnipresent in our culture — and it is potentially shortening their lives.

In Coca-Cola's defense, the company has supported anti-obesity campaigns in recent years, particularly aimed at children. But that hardly offsets the mountain of profits it and other beverage companies rake in from sales of sugary drinks. Certainly, such beverages can be consumed safely in moderation, but then the same thing could be said of alcohol, too, and that hasn't prevented government from restricting its sale or issuing health warnings or from pursuing a myriad of other programs to curb its consumption.

Here's another lesson from the anti-Coke campaign: "soda equals sugar." That's a message easily lost on even some health-conscious adults. Studies show even adults have trouble regulating the intake of soft drinks as we don't tend to feel satiated the way we would if we were eating a slice of cake or other dessert with the equivalent calories. That's why soft drinks present a threat that many other sources of excess calories do not.

So three cheers for the proponents for taking on the soda giant to stir public interest in the dangers posed by sugary drinks. Coke may not be threatened, but the rest of us should be, not by the commercials but by our own behavior. To liberally paraphrase another ad campaign, life can go better (and longer) without sugar-laden drinks.