Well Being

Coca-Cola, Pepsi To Put Calorie Counts On Vending Machines; Helping Public Image, Not Consumers

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Coca-Cola and Pepsi are going to start voluntarily putting calorie counts on vending machines, in a plan announced by the American Beverage Association this week. The plan is getting them some great press, because they appear to be taking initiative and prioritizing their customers' health…if you're totally blind to the beverage industry's huge lobby against regulation that would actually benefit consumers.

The Beverage Association's program, called “Calories Count,” will start with machines in San Antonio and Chicago, inspired by a friendly health competition between the municipal employees of both cities. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel started with a plan to lower Chicago's public health costs by getting government employees in his city and San Antonio to compete for most improved health; to provide incentive, he partnered with the beverage association, which will award $5 million to the winning city, and $1,000 prizes to individuals who improve their health the most in various categories (like blood pressure and overall weight loss).

Launching the calorie-labeled vending machines at the same time seems like a fairly obvious move to leverage the opportunity for press and counteract the public health campaigns that demonize their products as obesity-fueling poison. Steven A. Cahillane, president and chief executive of Coca-Cola Refreshments (which is in charge of its vending machine business), said in a statement:

We believe partnerships like this — those which involve government, industry and civil society — can have a meaningful impact on the obesity issue.

I'm not convinced.

Making more information available is a good thing, but calorie-labeled vending machines don't make their products healthy, and it certainly doesn't mean that health is their priority.

To start with, nutrition labels are already required on soda cans and bottles, and restaurants (where Bloomberg and others have sought to regulate size options and nutrition posting), vending machines don't typically offer a variety of sizes or prices. Once you're at a machine, you've already decided you're down with a can of soda or a bottle of pop; calorie counts aren't likely to make you opt for nothing, and you don't have the option of buying something smaller. Posting nutrition facts on the machine, in addition to on cans and bottles, might remind someone to opt for Diet instead of regular, but it's not likely to deter someone from buying a drink–or hurt Coke and Pepsi's business.

Photo: flickr user eddie.welker