Graphic images of gelatinous fat oozing out of soda bottles blanket the New York City subway. A research study promoted by the American Stroke Association recently trumpeted a link between diet soda and strokes. And a number of state and city governments are contemplating taxes on sweetened beverages to close budget gaps.
In short, it's a tough time to be the lead lobbyist and voice of the beverage industry.
Susan Neely, president-CEO of the American Beverage Association, admits her job has become more challenging as the number of obstacles for the industry mount. But Ms. Neely -- who has never worked for a beverage company -- is no shrinking violet. She repeatedly uses words such as aggressive, assertive, vocal and visible in describing the ABA's approach to critics.
"The volume of activity from what I would call activists in the public health community has increased, coupled with the fact that the economic downturn has policymakers looking for sources of revenue," she said. "It means that we've made the decision … to be very forthright in making the case for our products. We also need to be equally aggressive in being part of the solution in very meaningful ways. We can't afford to be passive; we need to be assertive."
To that end, there's not a negative study or media report that goes unchallenged. The ABA published a rebuttal to the American Stroke Association's study within hours, refuting the link between diet soda and strokes.
In that case, the ASA's claims had not been extensively studied, but that didn't stop the story from spreading like wildfire across the internet and the major TV networks, which can't seem to pass up the latest dietary "research," no matter how baseless it may be.
"It's confusing to consumers. You just can't let anything sit out there," Ms. Neely said. "In that case, we did go out and challenge it, and even some of our critics in the public-health community said ‘Let's not get all worked up yet, this is not real research.'"
Ms. Neely and the ABA are taking a similarly tough stance in combating the industry's key issues, which today revolve around obesity and taxes. Critics that claim links between sweetened beverages -- be they soda, juice or sports drinks -- and obesity have become increasingly vocal, leading to that stomach-turning ad campaign in New York. And with the health debate in high gear, city and state governments looking to plug budget gaps are presenting beverage taxes as a public-health solution with a financial upside. In recent years, taxes in Maine and Washington have been instituted only to be soundly overturned in ballot measures, but that hasn't stopped others from trying. Proposals to tax sweetened drinks have been raised in more than a dozen states, as well as cities like Philadelphia.
Ms. Neely has overseen a comprehensive strategy to fight the taxes, including the creation of the Americans Against Food Taxes coalition. The site, nofoodtaxes.com, makes it easy for consumers to send email messages to state government officials. An advertising campaign, including TV and print ads, has also been running.
"We want to make the point that the public -- nationally and in their state -- doesn't support these taxes," said Ms. Neely, who was assistant secretary of public affairs for the U.S. Department of Homeland Security before joining the ABA in 2005.
As for the claim by some lawmakers that taxing beverages will curb obesity rates, Ms. Neely points out that sweetened beverages account for only 7% of calories in American diets. Still, soda remains on the hot seat. Ms. Neely says that soft drinks are the most visible sweetened beverage and, therefore, the primary target of critics. To keep the heat off, Ms. Neely says she combats critics with data -- the sale of full-calorie soft drinks is decreasing at the same time that obesity rates are rising, for example -- and transparency.
The industry's key players, including Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Dr Pepper Snapple Group, have come together on a voluntary labeling initiative dubbed Clear on Calories. New packaging rolling out nationwide displays the total calories per container on the front of beverages 20 fluid ounces or smaller. And the industry has committed to front-of-pack calorie labeling on all brands and packages by early 2012.