MAGDZIK: For an end to soda at Yale

Making Magic

Soda’s deleterious health effects are well-documented. This should have made New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s plan for an experimental moratorium on the use of SNAP (food stamps) on soda and other nutrition-deficient foods a no-brainer.

Alcohol and tobacco are already verboten for SNAP because of their adverse health impacts. And not only is obesity bad for the obese, but there are third-party harms: we all foot part of the eventual health care bills (especially for the poor). But in August 2011, the U.S. Department of Agriculture blocked the proposal, scoring another victory for the new Big Tobacco — the soda industry.

We spend over $70 billion annually on SNAP to help feed over 45 million Americans. Yale’s own Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity has conducted research indicating that $2 billion in SNAP is used on sugary drinks. In other words, Big Soda has a lot of skin in the food stamps game; the effort to ensure universal adequate nutrition has substantially lined their pockets.

No surprise, then, that aggressive lobbying by trade groups and corporations like the American Beverage Association, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola has helped block a number of similar SNAP-restriction bills nationwide. These organizations utilize the rhetoric and arguments of anti-hunger advocates and libertarians. They suggest this policy will stigmatize the poor and perpetuate the myth that they make bad shopping choices, or that it is fundamentally “un-American” and Orwellian. The real explanation — that this boosts their bottom line — wouldn’t go over as well with the public.

These efforts are emblematic of broader practice. Recently, Coca-Cola donated almost $10,000 to Christine Quinn’s NYC mayoral campaign in the hopes of overturning another health initiative there, the large-soda ban. When asked for comment, a Coke spokesman replied, “We support candidates that promote fair policies that enrich the communities and marketplaces where Coca-Cola employees live and work.”

Discerning Yale students will recognize statements like this as tripe. Big Soda fights to enrich its coffers, nothing more. Its weapons of choice include shameful political bribery and questionable scientific “research.”

These firms have also undertaken ethically suspect strategies to increase revenue, including aggressive marketing targeted at youths and minorities (justified in the latter case as being “multiculturally sensitive”) and expanding operations in developing countries with less capable regulatory regimes or media watchdogs. For them, “freedom” means ensuring consumers are “free” to be inundated with manipulative ads constructed by experts in consumer psychology.   This corresponds to history. In 2000, Coca-Cola paid out what was then the largest settlement ever in a U.S. racial discrimination case, for its abysmal treatment of black employees. In the mid-2000s several Indian states banned Coke products, which had so much pesticide residue thanks to murky environmental practices, that farmers were spraying their crops with Coke. Refreshing.

All of which brings us to Yale. Obesity isn’t nearly as much a problem here as it is among the SNAP-using population of NYC; most of us drink soda in moderation, if at all. This might incline some of us to resist heavy-handed restrictions here.

But if we’re cognizant of the industry’s shady practices, then we must eliminate our own remaining soda consumption and stop subsidizing these companies’ lobbying and advertising efforts, if only to protect communities less able to resist them. We should start by getting rid of the dining hall soda dispensers.

A handful of residential college cafeterias don’t constitute a large source of revenue for Coca-Cola, true. But inculcating norms that oppose soda — like inculcating norms against tobacco — is inherently valuable. Yalies accustomed to healthier options will propagate these values in the communities where they live and work postgraduation.

Rooting out soda won’t be easy. Even here, the industry’s products and influence are pervasive. PepsiCo CEO Indra Nooyi is a Yale trustee, and the company funds a nutritional science fellowship at our School of Medicine, a conflict of interest if I’ve ever heard one.

Whenever soda companies face this kind of criticism, they obfuscate, often rather effectively. They are run by smart people who realize that strategies like donating substantial sums to legitimate causes to win goodwill, promoting diet sodas as “healthy” alternatives and assuring us they are a champion of poor minorities and a defender of American freedom can stave off the efforts of less-organized and less-wealthy public health advocates.

But unless we’re the kind of people who would have trusted the tobacco companies too when they told us cigarettes don’t lead to cancer, it’s time for all of us to move towards healthier and happier communities by ditching soda at Yale.

Michael Magdzik is a senior in Berkeley College. His column runs on Tuesdays. Contact him at michael.magdzik@yale.edu .

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