Why Coke’s $3 Million Contribution to Chicago is a Bad Idea

Chicago ColaA $3 million contribution to improve nutrition education and run exercise classes in Chicago public parks sounds like a great idea. Goodness knows both kids and parents in America can use all the help they can get losing weight and getting fit.

But there’s a slight problem – the contribution is coming from the philanthropy arm of the very company whose products are contributing to our obesity epidemic. And $3 million is a pittance for Coke, compared to the revenue it generates in a big city like Chicago.

Here’s how Rahm Emanuel, Chicago’s Mayor, sees things:

On Monday, Emanuel reiterated his position that it’s better to give people personal responsibility and the information necessary to make the right choices about their health than it is to legislate their behavior. And he pointed out that the deal with Coca-Cola will allow the Park District to hire about 60 armed forces veterans to lead fitness classes. Read more from the Chicago Tribune…

Baloney. This sounds like words straight out of the Coke PR guidelines:

  • Personal responsibility – People are no less responsible today than their parents were a generation ago. It’s the obesogneic economy propagated by companies like Coke that is irresponsible.
  • More exercise is the solution – Coke is encouraging people to exercise more, not to consume less empty calories. Heaven forbid people buy less foods
  • More jobs – 60 jobs created by Coke and the city of Chicago. And for ex-military no less! And on veterans Day!!

Here’s what Coke gets out of this deal:

  • Awesome PR
  • Lenient regulatory environment in Chicago – Don’t expect Rahm Emanuel to pull a Bloomberg on soft drinks in Chicago anytime soon.
  • Lenient regulatory environment in other major cities – because every mayor wants an extra 3 million dollars to benevolently spend on the people. Which means very few cities will impose substantial limitations on sales of soft drinks. Not to mention that elections are expensive and its good to have rich and satisfied contributors.

Here’s what Chicago gets:

  • More sugary soft drinks
  • More obesity
  • More diabetes

Hey Mayor Emanuel – how about installing more water fountains (that don’t suck) in schools, parks, and municipal buildings?

water fountain

  • http://twitter.com/harold_f harold fandino

    3 million does not come anywhere near the profits that the future customers (Chicago Public Park goers) will bring them. Shame,

  • Gerome

    My biggest problem with your article is that it assumes that regulation will be lenient in Chicago and the wanna-be cities. If they don’t get those benefits, they bought some PR. Period. Do you suppose Rahm tells city council to go easy on all beverage policy based on the gift from one? And why would council comply with such a request?

    Next problem: If it isn’t illegal to restrict sugar-sweetened beverages a la NYC, it should be. This is a legal product. I’m doubtful that Coke is worried about a groundswell of cities who will follow NYC’s lead. Why not? There is no evidence that this intervention will change obesity rates. None. Policy based on a hunch in not good policy. It also invites all description of regulation on other foods thought to be troublesome.

    Next: this blog wants to vilify soft drinks. An earlier post claimed they are the biggest contributor to the obesity problem. Really? Either correct yourself or provide a citation. Soft drinks in excess are not good for you. (Now, replace “Soft drinks’ with any other food and see if its still true.) I wish this blog took a more holistic view of a very complex problem instead of mounting a crusade.

    Finally, we don’t live in a black and white world. Can you confidently proclaim that the 125,000 persons who will get nutrition counseling will not outweigh any PR that Coke earns? I will grant you that it would be better if the Whole Grain Council or a health insurer or some other group funded this initiative. But they DIDN’T.

    So instead of browbeating Coke, why not use your power of the pen to cajole others to get in the game. Identify the need and challenge companies to follow the lead of Coca-Cola who is doing something constructive.

    • http://www.fooducate.com/ Fooducate

      Thanks Gerome for a well written rebuttal.

      Brief answers:
      1. Rahm doesn’t need to tell city council to go easy on Coke. That’s the beauty of these types of donations. Coke just hijacked nutrition and exercise and made them part of its story. Soft drinks are no longer the bad guys. The council won’t even think of any limitations to enact.
      2. Regulations that protects the public’s health interest are legal. Education alone certainly has not helped with obesity reduction. It’s time for serious public health measures.
      3. Soft drinks are the single largest contributor to our calorie intake (7% of the total) – see one reference here: Block, G., 2004. Foods contributing to energy intake in the US: data from NHANES III and NHANES 1999–2000. Journal of Food Composition and Analysis 17, 439–447
      4. Some people will surely benefit from this initiative. But the overall result for the people of Chicago will be negative.
      5. Thanks for the advice, but we’ll keep cajoling Coke to stop its aggressive soft drink marketing campaign and to stop co-opting the health message. We’ll double the effort to convince government agencies and elected officials to take a firm and aggressive stand against the two faced behavior of companies peddling junk food for billions in profits and then handing the people a pittance “feel good” donation.

  • Rich

    NYC just attacked the problem wrong. It’s not the size of the drinks that matter. It is the sugar in the drinks and added chemicals. What’s needed is less sweetening of the water. That the FDA can regulate.

  • james cooper

    Have you established that sugary drinks are a major cause of obesity? It seems reasonable, but I recall reading that sugar consumption has not increased in parallel with obesity.

  • carol

    Some good arguments here in both directions. But I think lack of exercise (and getting outdoors in general) really is a big problem today, and definitely more so than historically. Maybe we should blame technology (which almost always forces us to be sedentary) at least as much as the food/drink that people are consuming in front of those large and tiny screens ;-)

    • http://www.fooducate.com/ Fooducate

      Actually, activity levels today are similar to those of the 1970s. It’s the calorie intake that has risen dramatically. Soft drinks are 7% of the daily calorie intake, the largest single contributor to weight gain without a single nutritional benefit.

      • carol

        Hard to believe people were more healthy in the ’70s. Seems there was plenty of junk and unhealthy food then (not to mention more smoking)… maybe more, because there wasn’t a whole grain in sight. But kids + adults played outside (instead of on computer games) and walked much more, rather than driving everywhere.