Today the Wall Street Journal published an open letter by Coke CEO Muhtar Kent (read here) titled “Coke Didn’t Make America Fat.”  While that is not an untrue statement, it belies the contribution coke (soda for you Yankees) does make to the rising obesity rate. As Le nutritionniste puts it (google translation here), this is a PR move by the Coke corporation in the face of a possible tax on sugary drinks (for my thoughts on the tax, see here), and one that is presented pretty well.

I agree with many of the points made in the piece, such as this one; “If we’re genuinely interested in curbing obesity, we need to take a hard look in the mirror and acknowledge that it’s not just about calories in. It’s also about calories out.”  This statement is very true, we are a sedentary people now and we need to recognize the benefits of exercise, not only on our weight but on all aspects of health.  There are very few conditions (DMD is one of the few I can think of at the moment) that aren’t benefitted by healthy diet and exercise.

But this doesn’t get the companies who provide us with socially unhealthy products off of the hook. Take alcohol and cigarettes for example.  We have recognized that although there is nothing wrong with someone individually consuming these products there is a social cost of widespread use.  We see these costs both in the healthcare sector as well as the criminal justice system (DUI, DWI, etc), where time and money are spent to curb the problem.  Taxes have managed to bring down the use of these products, especially cigarettes.

I won’t mess with the tax/no tax issue but will say that Arkansas has implemented a tax system on cokes that funds pieces of their medicare pie.  There don’t seem to be any uprisings over this although I’m sure it was a fight to pass.

The big problem I have with Kent’s letter is in the first paragraph. “We at the Coca-Cola company are committed to working with government and health organizations to implement effective solutions.” It seems that you would have then volunteered to take all of your products out of public schools and gathering areas where the majority of attendees are children.  Unfortunately my home state of Texas had to take matters into their own hands to mandate that your drinks be taken out of our schools.  I wish they would do the same with food in the lunchroom, but I shall be pleased with small steps.

Overall I don’t like the tone that Kent takes, he shrugs off the responsibility his products bear on rising obesity rates while putting the blame on the public by saying we don’t exercise enough.  He presents percentages which can truly be confusing to the public rather than absolute values, blames the food industries and takes credit for employing over 200,000 Americans.  All of this does not absolve the products he sells and he should step up to the plate and admit the health consequences of overconsumption of his products.  This smells of the tobacco industry parroting their (intentional lies) beliefs that tobacco wasn’t addictive years after the medical community was trying to spread the truth.