With cities pressing to limit the intake of fattening foods and drinks, the nation’s major soda makers will start listing calorie counts on vending machines next year, a move critics said was aimed at averting calls for special taxes and other regulations.
Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc. and Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc. unveiled the initiative Monday in conjunction with a competition between Chicago and San Antonio municipal employees for a $5-million grant from the American Beverage Assn., an industry trade group.
Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Monday in a news conference with soda makers that he doesn’t want to impose serving-size limits as New York has and he doesn’t want his city to follow through on a proposed tax on such drinks.
New York took action after studies linked large portions of sugary sodas to obesity.
Instead, Chicago city workers will compete with San Antonio’s municipal workforce to determine which is healthier. The trade group also will award $1,000 to individual workers who meet healthcare goals. Emanuel said the criteria are still being worked out, but losing weight and quitting smoking are likely benchmarks that could earn a worker money.
Others, though, were critical of the idea.
The competition is “virtually a bribe to get two large cities not to do anything stronger to reduce soda consumption,” said Michael Jacobson, executive director of watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest.
“The industry knows that taxes would certainly raise prices and reduce consumption,” Jacobson said. “They’re willing to put in tens of millions of dollars to stop such efforts. They’re worried about dominoes falling.”
Like McDonald’s, which last month said it would list calorie counts on all of its menu boards and drive-throughs nationwide, the soda industry’s move addresses growing criticism that its products lead to obesity and other health problems.
“The industry needs to be proactive on this issue to deter critics,” said John Sicher, editor and publisher of trade publication Beverage Digest.
Emanuel said the program isn’t a payoff from the soda industry to avoid more punitive measures.
“I believe firmly in personal responsibility,” the mayor said at a City Hall news conference with executives from Coke, Pepsi and Dr Pepper.
Focus began to tighten on soda and its health effects after New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently pushed through a ban on the sale of sugary drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces.
Los Angeles City Councilman Mitchell Englander is pitching a plan to prohibit soda sales in some city libraries and parks. Residents in Richmond, Calif., will vote next month on a tax on soft drinks.
Soda sales have suffered in the U.S. in recent years, particularly on a per capita basis. The average American drank 44.6 gallons of soda last year, compared with 54 gallons in 1998, Sicher said.
Soda companies are adjusting to newly body-conscious customers by offering beverages in smaller portions and with alternative sweeteners. Diet soda brands now make up 29.1% of the industry, up from less than a quarter in 1999, Sicher said.
“The reality is that, over time, diet brands probably need to increase to about 50% of the business,” he said.
A 20-ounce bottle of regular Coca-Cola has 240 calories. A comparable container of Pepsi has 250 calories — about as much as a standard McDonald’s hamburger. A same-size bottle of Coca-Cola Zero has no calories.
Chicago and San Antonio will challenge employees “to take control of their wellness and make healthy lifestyle choices,” Emanuel said.
Machines in government buildings in the two cities will feature a Calories Count display, the soda makers’ trade group said. Other messages on the machines will include “Check Then Choose” and “Try a Low-Calorie Beverage.”
The machines will feature a wider selection of lower-calorie drinks, according to the trade group.
The calorie-conscious vending program will expand nationwide after the initial rollout in Chicago and San Antonio, the group said, but it didn’t provide a timetable.
Tribune staff writers John Byrne and Wailin Wong contributed to this report.