By STEPHANIE STROM New York Times
The three largest soda companies — Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and the Dr Pepper Snapple Group — have pledged to cut the number of sugary drink calories that Americans consume by one-fifth in about a decade, through a combination of marketing, distribution and packaging.
The commitment, made Tuesday at the 10th annual Clinton Global Initiative, taking place this week in New York, was an acknowledgment by the companies of the role their products play in the country’s obesity crisis and the escalating rates of diabetes and heart disease that accompany it.
“This is huge,” former President Bill Clinton said in a telephone interview. “I’ve heard it could mean a couple of pounds of weight lost each year in some cases.”
He said that in low-income communities, sugary sodas may account for a half or more of the calories a child consumes each day. Sugary soft drinks account for about 6 percent of the average consumer’s daily calories.
The program will cover company-owned vending machines and coolers in convenience stores, as well as fountain soda dispensers like those found in fast-food restaurants and movie theaters. The companies control almost all of those machines, in addition to about one-third of vending machines and 80 percent of coolers.
It also will spill into grocery stores in end-of-aisle promotions and other marketing. “We’ll use the most critical levers we have at our disposal, and the focus really will be on transforming the beverage landscape in the U.S. over the next 10 years,” said Susan Neely, chief executive of the American Beverage Association, the industry trade group.
It builds on a previous commitment the companies made to reduce the calories in the drinks they sell on school campuses and will incorporate lessons learned in Chicago and San Antonio, where they worked with mayors to improve the health of municipal employees by reducing calories in the sodas sold in vending machines in public buildings.
The new program, which will start in Little Rock, Ark., and Los Angeles, will use some of the same tactics, Ms. Neely said.
The companies have faced an onslaught of regulatory proposals over the last several years, ranging from a contentious effort by then-Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg in New York to limit the size of soda containers to a stalled bill in California that would require warning labels on such drinks.
Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition and public health at New York University and a prolific writer about food issues, noted that the companies have fought such efforts vigorously.
“While they’re making this pledge, they are totally dug in, fighting soda tax initiatives in places like Berkeley and San Francisco that have exactly the same goal,” said Professor Nestle, who has just finished a book about the industry.
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Sales of sugary drinks have been declining for more than a decade, because of greater awareness among consumers about the link between their eating habits and their health. From 2000 to 2013, calories consumed through sugary drinks fell 12 percent, according to Beverage Digest, attributed to declining soda sales and increased consumption of water and low-calorie drinks.
Over that time, soda companies have expanded their portfolios to include waters, juices and energy and sports drinks, and they continue to diversify. This year, Coca-Cola bought a minority stake in Monster, the energy drink company, and a similar investment in Keurig Green Mountain has led to the development of a machine to make cold single-serve drinks, which will be introduced this fall to compete with SodaStream soda makers.
Health advocates generally dismissed the Tuesday announcement as little more than another example of the industry’s marketing prowess.
“I suspect they’re promising what’s going to happen anyway,” said Kelly Brownell, an expert on obesity and dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University. “All the trends are showing decreased consumption of high-calorie beverages, and so what better way to get a public relations boost than to promise to do what’s happening anyway?”
Mr. Clinton said he recognized how hard it would be for consumers to change their habits. “When I was in my freshman year in college trying to live on a dollar a day, I drank at least one and sometimes two 16-ounce bottles of Royal Crown Cola a day because they cost 15 cents,” he said.
But after a heart operation in 2004, Mr. Clinton radically altered his diet. He said he now mostly drank water or iced tea, though he likes Gatorade G2, a sports drink with 30 calories.