Leaked emails reveal Coca Cola’s battle against the nanny state

Rival beverage companies and iconic soft drinks brands Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. would seem to be playing good cop/bad cop this week.

Leaked internal Coca-Cola emails released by anonymous hacker website D.C. Leaks show the company’s apparent effort to fight local soda tax proposals and shape media coverage on the issue.

Days later, PepsiCo announced a goal for reducing added sugar, salt and saturated fat in a majority of its products by 2025.

The public/private strategies may seem disparate, positioning the two companies at opposite spectrums of corporate responsibility. But they actually align neatly with the beverage industry’s longtime strategy, undergirded by its preference for choosing how to regulate itself rather than being regulated.

How aggressively companies work to thwart public health measures, especially those intended to decrease purchases of sugary beverages, especially as a substitute for other ways to hydrate, should surprise no one, especially in the case of these specific companies, experts say.

“In some respects, what’s surprising is that there’s not anything surprising,” said Jim O’Hara, director of health promotion policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“What I think nobody understands is the level of manipulation the companies that make these products engage in, and that’s why I think these [Coca-Cola] revelations are so important,” said Marion Nestle, a New York University professor and author of “Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning).

Topics discussed in the leaked emails, including lobbying efforts and attempts to manipulate dietary guidelines and the news media, “aren’t usually talked about in public,” Nestle said. “But they’re certainly talked about in private.”

See: Soda consumption falls in Berkeley after sugar tax

When asked by MarketWatch about the accuracy of the leaked emails, Coca-Cola said it “cannot confirm or deny.”

Coca-Cola believes that “calorie reduction initiatives…are more effective than discriminatory taxes,” and that “we strongly believe we can implement more effective solutions against obesity,” it told MarketWatch.

Industry group The American Beverage Association was even more forthright.

“Of course we would stand up and oppose discriminatory taxes and policies that single out our products,” said the ABA’s Kevin Keane. “Our companies know we have a role to play in combating obesity, and we’re taking unprecedented action to reduce calories and sugar from beverages in the American diet — particularly in areas with the highest rates of obesity in the country.”

Related: 10 things Coke, Pepsi and the soda industry won’t say

PepsiCo’s 2025 goals, announced Monday, do move the needle forward. It plans to have two-thirds of its global beverage volume contain 100 or less calories from added sugar per serving — a standard that less than 40% of its current volume meets — along with goals for saturated fat and sodium.

Photo: Getty Images

Read: PepsiCo sets goal to reduce sugar and saturated fat in its products by 2025

PepsiCo, some analysts say, has been the beverage giant already setting the nutritional standard in its industry. Gatorade, one of the company’s more popular products, already has 100 or less calories from added sugar per serving, Nestle noted.

CSPI president Michael Jacobson offered PepsiCo a “kudos” for setting specific nutritional goals, and saying he hoped others would follow its example.

Coca-Cola referred MarketWatch to its partnerships with various health initiatives and ongoing efforts to reformulate drinks and make them smaller.

But these companies still have a responsibility for the global obesity and diabetics epidemics, O’Hara said.

“Soda is sugar water. It’s water with sugar. And there is no good excuse for that being the default beverage, and that’s what industry has done over the last several decades,” he said. “That has had very bad health consequences for the nation and the globe.”

Read excerpts from the leaked Coca-Cola emails below.

On unfriendly dietary guidelines and a coverage “balance”:

A report for the 2015 Dietary Guidelines, which included measures to decrease sugar-sweetened beverage consumption, “far exceed the scope” of the advisory committee’s role, said an alleged email written by Katherine Loatman, the executive director of industry group International Council of Beverages Associations, and forwarded to Coca Cola executives.

(Some of those measures, including removing full-calorie drinks from U.S. schools, Coca-Cola told MarketWatch it has completed).

“In terms of process, there is an opportunity for review and modification from the U.S. federal government before the Guidelines are finalized. However, we should be prepared for this report to be cited frequently by activists, and work together to balance coverage,” the email said.

On fighting soda taxes:

Coca-Cola targeted two Connecticut legislative proposals for taxes on sugary beverages, along with a West Virginia bill, according to the leaked emails.

“We are working with coalition partners to ensure the [Connecticut] bills do not advance,” reads an alleged February 2016 email from Jennifer Lemming, a member of the company’s Government Relations team.

Moreover, “coalition-building work is underway in the California cities of San Francisco, Richmond, Oakland and Watsonville in preparation for potential beverage tax ballot measures in June or November 2016,” the email continues.

Another email describes Lemming’s team as “committed to effectively managing the national, state and local public policy issues and strengthening our social license to operate so that our business can grow.”

See: Americans should sharply limit sugar intake

On shaping media coverage:

An AP reporter’s story about Coca-Cola’s relationship with health experts is expected to “have a cynical, negative perspective about how companies, including Coca-Cola, pay experts to promote their brands in a positive or ‘healthy’ way to consumers,” one alleged March 2015 email written by then-Coca-Cola spokesman Ben Sheidler says.

“Despite our efforts to dissuade Candice from writing this story, she and her editors have decided to move forward anyway,” he said. “We have reached out to the AP’s editors to formally register our concerns about the story. A phone call is scheduled for later this afternoon with Candice Choi and her editor. We will continue to urge them not to run with the story.”

Another series of emails explain how the company dealt with a Wired reporter’s questions about the company’s sugar strategy in the face of soda-tax proposals.

The story had “a pessimistic tone,” the email read. “We will be reaching out to this reporter to better understand her decision not to include our perspective, and to build her brain around our strategy.”

On help from its “friends”:

One internal email discussed a Washington Post event about taxes on soda, salt and sugar.

Speakers included Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI.), Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack — “all of which are friends of The Coca Cola Company.”

“We will monitor the event and report on the event,” allegedly wrote Ryan Guthrie, whose LinkedIn profile indicates he is still at Coca-Cola, as a public affairs professional.

Read: Is Diet Pepsi with sucralose healthier than aspartame?

On a ‘worrying’ soda tax proposal in France:

Though a soda-tax proposal in France seemed to have little political momentum, “we are not taking it lightly,” wrote Salvatore Gabola, who is now deceased, in an internal email with the subject line, “ALERT – SODA TAX AMENDMENT IN FRANCE – LOW RISK, YET WORRYING.”

Coordination included partnering with a soft drinks association, ensuring “key government contacts…maintain opposition to the amendment” and reaching out to party members and local “supportive stakeholders,” according to the alleged email.

“We believe we have all it takes to avoid this yet again,” the spring 2015 email states. “It is however a worrying confirmation that there is relentless pressure on our category and politicians are starting to use unorthodox legislative processes (i.e. outside the normal budget bills) to discriminate against us.”

On improving Coca-Cola’s perception:

A calorie reduction initiative in the Netherlands — aimed at a goal of 10 percent fewer calories in drink products by 2020 — is “a key element in our strategy to fight discriminatory legislation and to improve category perception by taking the lead on innovation, choice, transparency and balanced lifestyles,” an alleged June 2015 email states.

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