Who's to Blame for Our Soda Problem—You, or Beverage Companies?

Corporate social responsibility campaigns subtly shift "responsibility" for healthfulness onto the consumer and away from companies' fattening products. 

The Doctor Will See You Now
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In what's apparently become a war on sugar, soda is taking much of the blame these days. But when it comes to our collective sugary drink problem, who's really at fault, the consumer or the company that makes the sugary foods and drink?

A series of pieces in the journal PLoS Medicine looks at the effect of "Big Food" (the food and beverage industry) on our health behavior, or lack thereof. The authors of a policy forum piece in the journal discuss the effectiveness of what are known as corporate social responsibility (CSR) campaigns of companies like Coca Cola and PepsiCo.

Just how socially responsible these campaigns are is one of the central issues.

'...CSR campaigns that include the construction and upgrading of parks for youth who are at risk for diet-related illnesses keep the focus on physical activity, rather than on unhealthful foods and drinks. Such tactics redirect the responsibility for health outcomes from corporations onto its consumers...'

According to the authors, from the Berkeley Media Studies Group in Berkeley and the Public Health Advocacy Institute in Boston, the moves the soda industry has made in recent years mirror those of tobacco from years ago.

The authors argue that outwardly CSR campaigns appear to be an attempt to raise public awareness of the health concerns of a given product, but more subtly, CSRs can work to shift the onus of responsibility to the consumer, and away from the company.

"It is clear that the soda CSR campaigns reinforce the idea that obesity is caused by customers' "bad" behavior, diverting attention from soda's contribution to rising obesity rates," the authors write. "For example, CSR campaigns that include the construction and upgrading of parks for youth who are at risk for diet-related illnesses keep the focus on physical activity, rather than on unhealthful foods and drinks. Such tactics redirect the responsibility for health outcomes from corporations onto its consumers, and externalize the negative effects of increased obesity to the public."

The moves of the soda companies are particularly disturbing, since they often target young people, who are already feeling the obesity epidemic in the same way as adults. Soda, they argue, is especially addicting since it often combines high levels of sugar with caffeine.

Ultimately, the authors say that it's up to the public and public health advocates to keep after these companies and the methods they use to gain access to our stomachs and our wallets. "Public health advocates must continue to monitor the CSR activities of soda companies, and remind the public and policymakers that, similar to Big Tobacco, soda industry CSR aims to position the companies, and their products, as socially acceptable rather than contributing to a social ill."

Regardless of whose "fault" it is that we're a sugar-addicted society, the authors do a nice job of shining a spotlight on the fact that many kinds of companies use carefully honed methods to shift consumer behavior. The more we're aware of this fact, the more likely we'll be to resist the siren call of soda (and other products that are bad for us).

The article is available on the PLoS Medicine website where the entire Big Food series can be accessed as it becomes available.


This article originally appeared on TheDoctorWillSeeYouNow.com, an Atlantic partner site.

Presented by

Alice G. Walton, PhD, is a health journalist and an editor at The Doctor Will See You Now.

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