Don't blame Coke

Coca-Cola CEO says more exercise will help Americans, not a 'fat tax'

By Kim Peterson Oct 8, 2009 4:02PM

Coca-cola bottles; Credit: (©Jeff Chiu/AP)Attention, America. Coke wants you to know that it did not make you fat. Why don't you go exercise more?

That's the gist of an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal this week by Muhtar Kent, the chief executive of Coca-Cola (KO).

What's got Kent all worked up is the prospect of a "fat tax" on sugary sodas and other high-calorie foods. Some states, desperate for cash, are talking about placing big taxes on these foods. President Obama recently voiced support for exploring the idea. And Kent is having none of it.

Americans need to get out there and exercise, he writes, citing statistics showing that 60% of us are not regularly active and 25% are not active at all. The average American spends a total of 60 days a year in front of a television.

"If we're genuinely interested in curbing obesity, we need to take a hard look in the mirror and acknowledge that it's not just about calories in," he writes. "It's also about calories out. Our industry has become an easy target in this debate."

It's an extraordinary piece, filled with all kinds of distracting ideas and numbers. Yes, Americans do need to exercise more. But what does this have to do with new taxes on sugary sodas?

Kent also argues that the average caloric content of soft drinks has dropped by almost a fourth in the last 20 years because of the rising popularity of diet drinks. But diet drinks are not part of the tax issue -- in many cases, the tax would be placed on non-diet sodas.

Sales of regular soft drinks are down by nearly 10% in the last eight years, Kent writes.

He argues that a tax on sodas will not change behavior. Two states that do tax sodas -- West Virginia and Arkansas -- have some of the highest obesity rates in the nation, he writes.

But the soda taxes in those states are so puny that they would not deter consumption anyway. In Arkansas, the tax is two cents for 12 ounces of soda, according to the Arkansas Times. It's even less than that in West Virginia.

Proponents of new soda taxes are pushing for much higher levies. New York tried to pass an 18% tax. It's an apples-to-oranges comparison.

And if new taxes don't deter consumption, then what is Kent worried about in the first place? He should be fine with a fat tax. 

"Obesity is a serious problem," Kent writes. "We know that. And we agree that Americans need to be more active and take greater responsibility for their diets. But are soft drinks the cause? I would submit to you that they are no more so than some other products -- and a lot less than many, many others."

I think it's great that the CEO of Coca-Cola gets involved in the fat tax debate. And much of what he writes is true. 

But instead of lobbing irrelevant factoids at us, he should just get down to the heart of the matter: State regulators are unfairly picking on sugary sodas to try and save their decimated economies. That could hurt Coca-Cola and the rest of the industry, and Coke is getting nervous.


Related reading:

Pepsi's good, but not great, news



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