No, Coca Cola. You may not comment on obesity.

So Coca Cola has made a new ad in which, as I tweeted yesterday, the [*big evil*] corporation ‘dares to consider itself part of the solution to obesity’:

In my tweet I also predicted that the grumps would be arriving, and of course they have. A sample of comments from YouTube:

‘I really wonder how you guys can sleep at night. This is TOTAL BULLSHIT.’

‘An advert showing that we are still being taught that all calories are the same and energy balance is the key to weight loss/gain. What a load of rubbish! Shame on you all…..’

‘I see what you people did here. You’re smart, people at coca cola.You people took what the tobacco industry did and adjusted it to fit your needs. What tobacco companies do is put label that tell you not to smoke. Now smokers associate “don’t smoke” signs with cigarettes. Coca cola is attempting to associate its brand with calorie counting. … [Reluctantly concluding] As a student in my university’s college of business, i appreciate your hustle.’

But that’s YouTube. Let’s turn now to the more “serious” critiques, like one penned by Ruth Faden in The Atlantic (Faden is a ‘Wagley Professor of Biomedical Ethics and Director of the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics. She is the co-author of Social Justice: The Moral Foundations of Public Health and Health Policy‘).

Faden calls the ad ‘unethical’ and ‘unconscionable’, ‘because of this statement: “All calories count. No matter where they come from including Coca-Cola and everything else with calories.”‘ She offers the following justification:

For Coca-Cola to suggest that all calories are equal flies in the face of reality as best as we can determine it. Many foods and drinks contain calories but also nutritional value; these are the calories that fuel our daily lives. Added sugars like those in Coca-Cola, however, add calories but no nutrition– so-called ” empty calories.” According to the Food and Drug Administration, “In some foods, like most candies and sodas, all the calories are empty calories.” So, Coca-Cola’s claim that “all calories count” is extraordinarily misleading.

Now, this strikes me as playing a bit fast and loose with the original claim. First of all, nowhere in the ad does it state that “all calories are equal”; it states that “all calories count”. And whether or not you are on board with the idea that a calorie is not *just* a calorie (ie. that sugar is prime evil and, say, hunks of animal fat are hunky dory) does not change the fact that all calories do obviously matter, and probably even more so the “empty” ones, which means including those from a Coke, which is what the ad states in the first place…

I’m not here to protect nor to promote Coca Cola products. But these knee-jerk reactions to corporate/industry involvement in anything “healthy” as being fuelled by anything but sleazy ulterior motives strikes me as incredibly unproductive in any public health conversations. Of course Coca Cola is out to sell as many products as they can – and happen to be extremely good at that. It’s also true that they are responding to the “changing tide”/hysteria by changing some of their products to the “safer” lo/no-calorie options. Is that an evil plot to get more people to drink more expensive bottled water? Perhaps. And whether they *actually* care about how fat your child is or not, they are clearly recognizing that if they don’t do something, they will lose their market share (to Pepsi?). In other words, there is no good reason that Coca Cola cannot be involved in changing people’s habits for the better.

“Damned if they do, damned if they don’t”. “You’re either with us or against us”. Remember those? False choices. The best way not to have a conversation.

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