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Coca-Cola's New Health Venture: Coke Is Right But So Wrong

In its more than 100 years of operation, the company has not only adjusted its products to changing tastes and health concerns, it has grown into a global enterprise and thrived economically. Thus, there is hope that in its new venture, Coke will realize that it cannot be part of the solution if it is significantly contributing to the problem.
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The Coca-Cola Company is right: Americans need more exercise. It is also correct in pointing out that we do not pay "enough attention to exercise." Moreover, Coke deserves praise for donating money to build fitness centers in more than 100 schools across the country. Thus, Coke can make an important contribution to increasing public awareness of the essential role of physical activity in maintaining health.

As one starting point, Coke's voice could be significant in ensuring that its donated fitness centers are used. While we don't need Coke's money for more research to tell us that schools can play an essential role in ensuring young people spend sufficient time each day engaging in vigorous or high-intensity physical activity and that most children and adolescents do not come close to meeting these recommended levels, Coke can do more to address these shortcomings. Studies by reputable scientific bodies, including the Institute of Medicine, The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and The Centers for Disease Control have found that less than half of high school students attend daily physical education classes, and a large majority fail to meet the recommendations of sixty minutes of exercise per day. In a poll conducted by the Harvard School of Public Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and NPR 68 percent of parents reported that their children did not get daily exercise.

Unfortunately, in too many school districts education reform has crowded out time and money for exercise. Since the 2001 passage of legislation mandating high stakes testing, 44 percent of school administrators reported cutting physical education classes and recess. No doubt the increased burden of homework and test performance has also cut into after school sports programs and opportunities for other physical activity.

Still, we don't need any more studies to tell us that these developments are costly and shortsighted. In the near term, children lose many benefits. Based upon its review of the current scientific literature, the CDC maintains "Regular physical activity in childhood and adolescence improves strength and endurance, helps build healthy bones and muscles, helps control weight, reduces anxiety and stress, increases self-esteem, and may improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels."

Moreover, today's failure also has longer term consequences. For example, one recent study found that high levels of physical activity during early teen age years may reduce the risk of later developing diabetes. Another, the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study, suggested that there may even be a causal relationship between physical education and prevention of youth obesity. Common sense validates research findings that developing and valuing a regular exercise habit at a young age is easier to maintain in adulthood than is initiating an exercise routine during one's career-building and child-raising years.

More controversially, Coke may arguably be correct in implying that the issue we should be addressing is not obesity or how much we eat, but rather how we can stay healthy. As the nutrition experts continually amend dietary guidelines and recommendations for healthy eating, many Americans become consumed by fears that they will eat the wrong foods thereby increasing their risk for heart disease, diabetes, or other chronic conditions.

So, if we all should know that both diet AND exercise are essential for good health, and Coca-Cola wants to use its money and clout both to help ensure our kids are physically active and to remind adults that we should not ignore the exercise half of the health equation, why is Coke's new venture front page news?

The answer most likely rests with the framing of its message and the intention behind it. Putting aside the shenanigans associated with concealing its backing for a "science-based" non-profit that will contribute little, if any, new research to the discussion, Coke's approach belies an interest in promoting health. Rather, the company appears to be defensively implying that exercise can overcome bad eating and drinking habits, including the consumption of empty calories in the highly sugared beverages it markets. Just like the nutrition advocates it criticizes for ignoring the role of exercise, Coke is ignoring the half of the equation that speaks to the role of a good diet in promoting health.

And unfortunately, no matter how it frames it message, Coca-Cola cannot not credibly argue that drinking highly sugared soda pop holds any benefit for the overwhelming majority of Americans. Coke's cynical ploy is especially distasteful because industry-sponsored research that yields carefully crafted findings will likely taint the reputation of distinguished scientists and research institutions. Coke's efforts to legitimate the consumption of sugary sodas will thus obscure the important issues raised by its spotlight on exercise.

Coke is not wrong to advocate that we change the conversation from focusing on obesity as a crisis to considering what we should do to improve the public's health. The issue is not how much we weigh but how to reduce our risk of preventable chronic diseases. This is a monumental challenge. Coke is correct that we will not get very far by engaging in political fights over taxing soda or banning super-sized cups. But it is equally wrong to assert that Americans can continue to guzzle such drinks without risking diseases associated with consuming large quantities of sugar as well as with unhealthy weight gain.

Ironically, Coca-Cola began as a venture into health. The drink was promoted as a patent medicine that could cure several diseases. The creators of the original products, which contained significant doses of cocaine, paradoxically touted it as a cure for morphine addiction. In its more than 100 years of operation, the company has not only adjusted its products to changing tastes and health concerns, it has grown into a global enterprise and thrived economically. Thus, there is hope that in its new venture, Coke will realize that it cannot be part of the solution if it is significantly contributing to the problem.