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Prevention Institute

September 17, 2012

Health Before Profits: Using Media to Voice Support for Beverage Policies

Last week, the New York City Board of Health unanimously passed a measure that would cap the size of soda and other sugary drinks sold for individual consumption in food service establishments at 16 ounces. At a time when the nation is facing unprecedented rates of chronic disease—and an ever-growing body of research identifies sugary beverages as a significant contributor to this trend—this effort to create a healthier food environment is a strong step in the right direction.

Responses to the policy’s passage have been mixed, and the biggest players in the food and beverage industry have launched an aggressive opposition campaign. But community and health leaders know that policies that create healthier food and activity environments are critical to shifting norms and reducing the toll of chronic disease. That’s why communities across the country— including California cities Richmond and El Monte—are standing up and championing creative policies that limit the harmful impact of sugar-sweetened beverages.

We shouldn’t let industry’s campaign drown out the strong support for beverage policies that put public health above corporate profit. With passage of NYC’s groundbreaking policy, now is a critical time to show support for innovative efforts that reduce the harmful impact of sugar-sweetened beverages.

In the news

Language plays a powerful role in shaping how a message is perceived. Health advocates faced an uphill battle on this issue right out of the gate, given the widespread and nearly instantaneous adoption of the term “soda ban” in the media. Those two simple words alone have dominated the conversation, obscuring the underlying intent and value of the policy. In fact, even news articles showing support for NYC’s effort inadvertently reinforced this negative frame, as evidenced by stories like “NYC ban on big, sugary drinks could help” and “Why Soda Ban Will Work In Fight Against Obesity.”

Of course, despite the rhetoric, NYC’s initiative, as one New York Times editorial pointed out, “isn’t really a ban on anything.” While the initiative will put a 16-ounce serving size cap on a range of sugar-sweetened beverages in certain food service establishments, individuals are still free to purchase as many 16-ounce drinks as they like. “When soda industry spokespeople and executives argue that Bloomberg's proposal restricts choice, they need to be specific,” Berkeley Media Studies Group stated, in a response to this commonly heard argument. “It restricts industry's choice. It forces soda companies to be accountable to the public, rather than freely allowed to exploit the public. And it puts the public's health ahead of profits, taking a little power away from major corporations and putting it back in the hands of ordinary people.” Governments have an important role to play in protecting the health of its citizens and, contrary to the criticisms, the New York City beverage policy is an important step in that direction. Now is the time for advocates to respond to coverage, make the case for beverage policies, and re-frame the way this issue is being presented in the media.

Here are some talking points advocates can use to broaden the frame and discussion of this issue:

  • Public health has a long, proud history of using policy to protect health and individuals. Industry does not have carte blanche to sell products that make us ill. Policies that regulate tobacco, seatbelts, and lead in paint have successfully built on this same principle of consumer protection. Such laws were controversial when first introduced, but today, they’re a given. With evidence mounting that sugary beverages are detrimental to health, the proposed serving size cap is a small step that’s working toward a similar shift in norms. We want children and parents to take for granted that the places they live, work, play, and learn are going to support their health, not harm it.
  • The research affirms it: addressing sugary beverages makes sense. A growing body of evidence demonstrates that sugar-sweetened beverages are among the largest contributors to the chronic disease epidemic. These beverages accounted for 43% of the increase in daily calories consumed between 1977 and 2001, and continue to be the largest source of added sugar in the average American’s diet.
  • This issue is about who gets to shape our food environment and the health of our children. We already live in a society where our food choices are shaped and constrained by policies, regulations, and practices. But when the food and beverage industries are spending billions of dollars to have a say in these messages, parents and kids have the odds stacked against them. Corporate profits should not come at the expense of the public’s health, and the New York proposal is one strategy for shifting this tide.

Take Action

  • Send a letter to the editor or post an online comment in response to related news coverage you come across.
  • Visit Strategic Alliance’s website for some quick tips on getting a letter published.
  • Read the Strategic Alliance Framing Brief Sugar Water Gets a Facelift: What Marketing Does for Soda, which describes how the soft drink industry is creating new and effective ways to market their products to keep current customers and attract new ones.
  • Did you submit a comment or get something published? We want to hear about it! Connect with us on Twitter (@strat_alliance) or send us an e-mail to share your efforts.

Read more about beverage marketing

Read Prevention Institute Executive Director Larry Cohen’s new piece in the Huffington Post, Please, Don’t Diss the Water, which looks at beverage marketing— the good and the bad. And see his previous piece on NYC's beverage policy, Soda: Size Does Matter.

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