Monday, August 27, 2012

The Long Angry Arm of Coca-Cola

Not Actually a Photo of Dr. Isra Levy

First some brief background.

This May Ottawa's Public Health (OPH) department released their, Healthy Eating, Active Living Strategy which outlines some of the steps and recommendations OPH believes will further the health of Ottawans.

One of the items identified as an unhealthy behaviour is the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages and the strategy made the following singular recommendation therein:
"Launch social marketing campaigns focusing on walking and sugar sweetened beverages."
Oh the horror!

How dare OPH suggest that we launch a social media campaign that both champions walking and cautions against the consumption of sugar sweetened beverages?

What's amazing too is that here we are in late August and suddenly a strategy report released in May saw 117 news headlines about it show up last week.

Where did all this outrage come from?

The long angry arm of Coca-Cola.

And it's an amazing story too as it clearly demonstrates that those boys from Atlanta know what they're doing when it comes to commanding spin.

What'd they do?

First they launched a letter writing campaign. According to OPH no less than 14 identical copies of an angry letter (signed by 14 different local Coca-Cola executives) were circulated to various City Councillors and the Mayor.

Next they literally flew in a ringer Coca-Cola suit from Atlanta to chew out Dr. Isra Levy the City's Chief Medical Officer.

More importantly though they changed the message.

Suddenly the issue was no longer about whether or not we consume too many sugar-sweetened beverages and whether or not there's anything we can do to help reduce their unhealthy consumption (especially by our children). Nope, now the issue was our "civil liberties" and the bad guy was no longer sugared soda, it was Dr. Isra Levy.

And what insanity does Dr. Levy condone? Putting aside that all he's ever actually recommended is a social media campaign and that he once admitted under questioning that regulation was theoretically part of the city's toolkit (why let facts get in the way of a great narrative?) let's say media letter writers, news columnists, the internet's angry commentators and Coca-Cola were all right! That Dr. Levy instead has some master plan to ban the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages in publicly funded institutions? That suddenly you found yourself unable to buy Coca-Cola in your local city funded arena, community center or workplace?! I mean that'd be just steps away from full on fascism, no? You'd sure think so if you read the truly laugh-out-loud alarmist piece in the Ottawa Sun by Anthony Furey entitled, "Back Off Pop Police: Tell Ottawa's Top Doc He Has No Right to Ban Your Liberties Along with Drinks" and where he invites readers to write Dr. Levy to tell him what they think about his nefarious plans.

What's really telling about all of this though is that by creating such a big stink Coca-Cola's showing their cards. They're scared. If the specter of a social media campaign in a single line in an Ottawa, Ontario, Canada Public Health report is enough to launch a letter writing campaign and fly muscle in from Atlanta clearly they feel they've got a huge public relations problem on their hands and while they certainly did succeed in changing the subject here in Ottawa the way this all went down - it's actually quite heartening.

All that said, Dr. Levy's had a rough ride. If you're reading this and think that perhaps his identification of sugar-sweetened beverages as problematic is a fair one, why not drop him a line and let him know you support his efforts.

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  1. In the more than three decades I've been monitoring the public health sector, I never saw a strongly worded warning about sugar consumption until a few years ago.(1) Consequently, most people and their children consume empty calories in beverage form with more or less reckless abandon.

    Consuming a substantial portion of ones calories in liquid form does two things; it burdens the bloodstream with triglycerides and it dilutes the micronutrient content of the diet. It's sort of like thinning latex paint with lots of water. Just as more coats of paint are required to achieve coverage, more calories are needed to attain satiety. So drinking sweet beverages induces snacking behaviour. Since much of what people snack on is similarly lacking in micronutrients, appetite control becomes increasingly problematic.(2)

    Sadly, while the public health sector finally knows it ought to warn consumers to drink fewer sugar-sweetened beverages, it doesn't know how to explain to the public, in simple terms, the rationale behind the recommendation. Thus, the public health message can be spun by the beverage industry into an infringement on freedom.


  2. I did write to Dr. Levy, hoping the pop companies go the way of the tobacco giants. Shana tova to both of you!

  3. Oh, and I got a lovely response from his office! Way to go, Dr. Levy!

  4. Wow, is Anthony Furey for real?
    I agree with your previous commenter, Coca-Cola and other sugary beverage companies should be banned from advertising just as tobacco companies are.

  5. Anonymous5:50 pm

    Before you are hired to write for the Sun you have to prove that you have an IQ under 70.