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Soda-policy attitudes affected by perceptions of the industry, political leanings, U study finds

Scientists raise concerns about food-packaging chemicals
Original photo: Creative Commons/mroach
In the past five years, the American Beverage Association alone has spent more than $33 million on lobbying.

Getting Americans to drink less sugary sodas and other beverages is a top public-health policy. Study after study has linked the consumption of these beverages with poor health outcomes, especially obesity and type 2 diabetes.

And Americans consume an incredible amount of soda — an average of 44 gallons per person per year (and that doesn’t include sugary fruit or sports drinks).

Coming up with policies — politically feasible ones, that is — to help Americans shake off their sugary soda fix has been extremely difficult. The most notable failures have been the attempts to impose excise taxes on sodas or to restrict their serving size.

Still, there have been some success stories, mostly in regard to children. Many school districts have banned sugar-sweetened drinks from vending machines and the meals served in their schools’ cafeterias.

Lobbying by the beverage industry is a key reason, of course, for the fizzling of many soda-related policies. In the past five years, the American Beverage Association alone has spent more than $33 million on lobbying against such policies.

But public opinion is another factor. Yes, that opinion is often swayed by industry’s framing of the issue, but how individuals accept that framing seems to be determined by more personal factors, such as political leanings and educational levels.

At least, that’s what a new University of Minnesota study, published online this month in the journal Preventive Medicine, suggests.

A national sampling

For the study, Sarah Gollust, an assistant professor at the U’s School of Public Health, and her colleagues, Colleen Barry of Johns Hopkins University and Jeff Niederdeppe of Cornell University in New York, surveyed a national sampling of 1,319 adults, aged 18 to 64, in the fall of 2012. 

“We wanted to know why the policy around sugary soda consumption is so politically charged,” said Gollust in a phone interview with MinnPost.

Among the questions asked of the participants was their support for six policy interventions. Not unsurprisingly, support was strongest for strategies that emphasize consumer choice and those involving children. It was weakest for ones that restrict the choices available to adults.

Here are those findings:

  • 65 percent of the respondents supported (and 11.1 percent opposed) requiring large and prominently placed calorie labels on sugary drinks
  • 61.5 percent supported (and 19 percent opposed) prohibiting schools from selling sugary drinks on school property
  • 51 percent supported (and 23.5 percent opposed) requiring TV stations to provide free air time for public-service announcements on healthy eating and exercise equal to the time used for advertising sugary drinks
  • 49.8 percent supported (and 26 percent opposed) prohibiting advertising of sugary drinks during TV program watched primarily by children
  • 25.5 percent supported (and 52.8 percent opposed) prohibiting the sale of any sugary drink larger than 16 ounces
  • 21.6 percent supported (and 58.4 percent opposed) requiring a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks that would add 12 cents to the cost of a 22-ounce can of soda

A deeper data dive

Gollust and her colleagues weren’t all that surprised by these findings. “We had already known that the soda tax and size restrictions were pretty unpopular,” she said. “We had also hypothesized that when policies affect kids, people tend to be more supportive of the ‘nanny’ state.”

The surprises came when the researchers dove further into the data provided by the questionnaires to figure out what factors were determining the support — or lack of it — for the six policies.

They found that age, race, gender and income were not consistently related to support of the policies. Nor did being overweight or obese or being a parent of a child under the age of 18 predict an individual’s support.

Interestingly, though, younger respondents — those aged 18 to 29 — were 57 percent more likely to support a soda tax than the older respondents, women were 43 percent more likely than men to support restricting soda sizes, and individuals who were obese were 22 percent more likely than their non-obese peers to support equal time for healthy TV messages.

In addition, the data revealed that having a higher educational level (college or more) was strongly related to support of four of the six policies. (The exceptions were the portion-size restrictions and the equal-time public-service announcements.)

Politics and perceptions

The study revealed that only two variables consistently predicted whether or not someone would support all six policies: political party identification and favorable perceptions of soda companies.

Republicans supported all the policies much less than Democrats, and political independents also tended to have lower support for soda taxes and portion-size restrictions than Democrats.

Republicans were, for example, 75 percent less likely than Democrats to support government-imposed portion-size restrictions on soda and 79 percent less likely to support requiring TV stations to counter ads for sugary drinks with public service announcements on healthy eating.

But the biggest surprise in the data, said Gollust, was the relationship between people’s attitudes about soda companies and their support of strategies to reduce consumption of those companies’ sugary products.

“If you viewed the companies more favorably, you were less supportive of the policies,” she said.

That finding held no matter what the person’s political leanings.

The respondents who expressed a positive attitude about soda companies were 52 percent less likely to support a soda tax than those with a negative attitude, for example, and they were 31 percent less likely to support restrictions of ads for sodas during children’s TV shows.

A changing landscape?

Overall, the study’s findings suggest “that school-based policies and labeling are more politically feasible than restricting adults’ access or imposing taxes, reflecting public enthusiasm for regulation that maintains a value on consumer choice in the marketplace while tolerating more paternalism in restricting the choices available to children,” write Gollust and her colleagues.

Still, that attitudinal landscape may change. That’s the question most people don’t think about.

“While this study confirms the now-anticipated partisan polarization over obesity prevention approaches, attitudes toward beverage companies predict support above and beyond political factors,” the researchers add. “If attitudes toward companies are malleable, increased support for [sugary soda]-restricting policies could be feasible with strategic efforts to raise public awareness of soda company marketing tactics to children, produce manipulation, lobbying activities, and other actions that the public considers negative.”

As Gollust and her colleagues point out, “U.S. support for tobacco control policies grew as public understanding shifted from a dominant view of tobacco use as a free choice to the notion of tobacco as an addictive product aggressively marketed and manipulated by the tobacco industry.”

A similar shift in public attitudes toward soda companies may already be under way. Among the survey’s respondents, 30 percent said they had an overall favorable view of soda companies — but 31.2 percent said they had an unfavorable view.

Of course, that’s still a long way from the attitudes expressed in the survey toward cigarette companies: 6.4 percent favorable versus 72.8 percent unfavorable.

‘Default beverages’

“I think it’s useful for the public to be a little more conscious about the norms around consumption of these beverages,” said Gollust. “It’s pretty ubiquitous. It’s become so common that the default beverage when we go out for a lunch is a Coke or a lemonade.”

But how did those sugary choices become the norm?

“Americans seem to object to government intervening on what is available to consume, but industry, companies and restaurants have already played with the architecture of what those choices are,” said Gollust.

You’ll find an abstract of the study online.

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Comments (4)

  1. Submitted by Dennis Tester on 03/27/2014 - 10:29 am.

    Support of soda companies?

    Who could possibly say they’re “in support” of soda companies other than people who are employed by them or who own company stock?

    More likely, this measure is really designed to gauge the opposite of support. In other words, who sees corporate America as an evil entity out to destroy people and how can we influence that number?

    And as the authors suggest, demonizing the tobacco companies worked so let’s do it with the pop makers.

    The political divide is really between people who believe that it’s not the role of government to decide what you’re allowed to ingest, and those who think that it’s not only the government’s role to do that, but to ban products and punish manufacturers who don’t conform to the nanny state’s standards. And we saw from the study who those people are.

  2. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 03/27/2014 - 11:38 am.


    Funny how the term “choice” in some health-related contexts causes a segment of the population to suffer from the vapors, while the same term in a different context is one those same people will support to their last political campaign contribution dollar.

    “Who could possibly say they’re “in support” of soda companies other than people who are employed by them or who own company stock?”

    Why, Republicans, Mr. Tester. People who call themselves “conservative.” People who are slavishly devoted to the delusion that multinational corporations are politically benign, or that those corporations have some sort of intrinsic interest in the welfare of a republican / democratic form of government, or even more delusional, as your own example highlights, that those corporations have some interest in maintaining the public welfare and health.

    Some multinationals are blatantly immoral, but most big companies couldn’t care less about morality, or the long-term effects of their services or products. They exist to make money, and that quest makes most of them amoral.

    Coke or Pepsi will be happy to sell you 2-liter bottles of their product right through your struggle with diabetes and right up to the moment when your kidneys fail altogether and you die. I was happy to see you use the tobacco companies as a counter-example, since those companies are essentially the prototype for not only fostering and encouraging addictive behavior with an addictive product, but also for long-standing efforts – quite successful for quite a long time – to lie to both the public and to the government in order to protect their bottom line.

    Profit before all other considerations was their primary “core value.” A smaller-scale example recently came to a conclusion on TV. It was titled “Breaking Bad.”

  3. Submitted by Bill Gleason on 03/28/2014 - 05:07 pm.

    Perceptions of the soda industry

    may also be formed by enticing medical school deans to the board of directors of companies in the industry. This makes for excellent window dressing as the companies can then piously point at their interest in nutrition, health, and all that other good stuff.

    For example, the medical school dean at the University of Minnesota in 2007 (Dr. Deborah Powell) did just this. And it was quite lucrative.


    It’s the Ick Factor…
    BigU MedSchoolDean Sits on the Pepsi Board

    “When an expert joins this kind of board, clearly it’s going to compromise their ability to speak out,” said Michele Simon, author of “Appetite for Profit,” a book that accuses giant food companies of preaching public health while pursuing strategies that undermine it.

    Putting doctors on boards is part of food company strategy to protect their public relations image, she said. PepsiAmericas, she added, now has “the dean of one of the most prestigious medical schools in the country.”

    To make things worse, the VP of the U of M Academic Health Center, Dr. Frank Cerra, tried to defend this:

    “It seems to me like a very appropriate role for the university, providing there are no conflicts of interest that haven’t been disclosed,” Cerra said. Citing his travel experience in remote areas of the world, Cerra added he was “awfully glad there are companies like Coke and Pepsi around” to provide a source of drinkable liquid and electrolytes in those regions.

    [I never realized what humanitarians the Coke and Pepsi folks are; a cynic might wonder if Coke and Pepsi were specifically concocted for this purpose? A long stretch, I am afraid, at justification.]

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