Tag: soft drinks

When The Government Is The False Advertiser

I had an op-ed in the Washington Times yesterday on government’s growing participation in public-health scare campaigns demonizing everyday foods that are fattening, salty, or thought to be bad for us in other ways. In particular, I singled out Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s New York City Department of Health, which has followed up one scientifically dubious ad campaign on sweetened soft drinks (“What can we get away with?” asked one official) with an even worse – in fact, grossly misleading and manipulative – attack on salt in processed foods:

It shows a can of soup bursting at the seams with table salt, whole mounds and piles of it. The city’s underlying point is not 100 percent off-base - healthful in most other ways, conventional canned soup is a relatively salty food - but the actual amount of salt in a can is more like 1 teaspoon, not the third of a cup or more depicted in the city’s ridiculously exaggerated photo. Not to put too fine a point on it, but the Bloomberg soup ad is built on a visual lie.

What would happen if a private advertiser tried to get away with imagery as misleading as this? Well, in 1970, in a case still taught in business schools, Campbell’s got caught manipulating the soup pictures in its ads; its photographers had put marbles at the bottom of the bowl so that the pleasing vegetables would be more visible on top. The Federal Trade Commission filed a deceptive-advertising complaint to make the company stop.

The FTC’s authority would not extend so far as to ordering New York City to cease its misrepresentations, and for various reasons (including the principle that states and localities ought largely to retain independence from federal dictation) we should be glad it doesn’t. But couldn’t we at least ask that the federal taxpayer not be made to subsidize the false advertising?

Last month, the federal Centers for Disease Control - headed by Bloomberg’s own [former health commissioner Dr. Thomas] Frieden - announced a $412,000 grant to assist the city in its anti-salt efforts.

The full piece is here. Incidentally, via the American Council on Science and Health comes word of a new Harvard study finding that Americans’ intake of salt is almost exactly the same as it was 50 years ago; it also seems that international studies find that people in other countries tend to pursue and attain very similar levels of salt intake. If accurate, that would cast doubt on two key themes of public health alarmism, namely that America is experiencing some sort of epidemic of exposure to salty processed foods, and that such an epidemic underlies rising hypertension rates (which, as the article explains, may owe more to obesity than to salt intake). I could not resist a chuckle at the name of the press outlet reporting the results of the new study: Bloomberg Business Week.

The Calorie Police

What can I say about San Francisco’s ban on vending machines for sugared soft drinks on city property?

I could say that a twelve ounce can of Coca-Cola has fewer calories than twelve ounces of whole milk, because it does – 140 to 216.

I could say that you’ll be even fatter if you substitute whole milk for Coke, ounce for ounce, because you will be.

I could say that the extra nutrients in milk don’t do anything to make it less fattening, because they don’t.

I could say that 12 ounces of soy milk has 198 calories, which is still well above Coke’s 140.

I could even say that switching to skim milk doesn’t help you all that much – if you do the math, you’ll find that there are 124.5 calories in 12oz of skim milk, compared, again, to 140 for Coke.

I could also point out that a tall Starbucks Frappuccino – also 12 ounces, and not covered by the ban – has 190 calories, largely from sugar and fat.

I could ask: Does anyone ever order a plain Frappuccino? A tall mocha Frappuccino has 220 calories.

Finally, I could point out that banning vending-machine drinks while leaving Starbucks untouched is a pretty rank example of class privilege at work – my indulgences are sophisticated and upper-class, while yours are vulgar and prole.

And, I imagine I hardly need to make the case that this ban is the thin end of a wedge, and that comprehensive regulation of sugar, fat, and salt is on the way.

But really, it’s a lot simpler than that. What I should say is that your body is yours. Liberals themselves would tell you just the same in many other contexts. It’s yours to do with as you see fit. It’s yours to use, and it’s yours to use up, as Dan Savage once put it. (Can bans on risky sex be far behind?)

Part of being free is being free to make bad choices, to take risks, and to bear the consequences. Part of being free is that you, personally, may decide what you eat or drink. It’s a liberty so elementary that our founders never even imagined that it would need protection, but today, it does. (These same founders also rioted when the British taxed their tea. Which I’m sure Parliament only did for their own good anyway.)

To be sure, there are many costs associated with socialized health care, and some of the choices we make will certainly raise those costs. That’s one big reason why the nanny state is suddenly in the food business. But if we absolutely must have socialized health care – a point I don’t for a moment concede – then I’d prefer to pay a little bit extra and keep all my other liberties, thanks.

Pepsi Throwback and the Sugar Racket

This weekend while watching a football game with a friend, I saw a commercial for Pepsi “Throwback.” This is a new product containing real sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. My friend was incredulous when I explained that soft drinks manufactured for sale domestically generally don’t contain sugar because government protection of the U.S. sugar industry from imports make its use cost-prohibitive.

I am intrigued that Pepsi would market a sugar-based product. In perusing the Internet for news about it, I found countless stories applauding the product but blaming Pepsi and Coke for continuing to use inferior-tasting high-fructose corn syrup. For example, Pepsi Throwback’s Wikipedia page states that soft drink manufacturers switched to high-fructose corn syrup decades ago because of rising sugar prices, but it doesn’t mention that government policy was behind the price increases.

A Cato essay on agricultural regulations and trade barriers explains the government’s sugar racket and its destructive effects. Here are the key points:

  • The federal government guarantees a minimum price for sugar in the domestic market by maintaining a system of preferential loan agreements, domestic marketing quotas, and import barriers.
  • USDA data show that U.S. sugar prices have been more than twice world market prices.
  • The Government Accountability Office estimates that U.S. sugar policies cost American consumers about $1.9 billion annually.
  • U.S. food industries that buy sugar are harmed by current sugar policies. The employment in U.S. sugar growing is 61,000, which compares to employment in U.S. businesses that use sugar of 988,000.
  • According to a U.S. Department of Commerce report, for each sugar growing and harvesting job saved through high U.S. sugar prices, nearly three confectionary manufacturing jobs are lost.
  • Numerous U.S. food manufacturers have relocated to Canada where sugar prices are less than half of U.S. prices and to Mexico where prices are two-thirds of U.S. levels.

Chicago has been particularly hard hit, with many candy companies moving production abroad. One might think that our president, a Chicagoan, would be willing to take on the powerful domestic sugar lobby. But as Dan Griswold discussed in October, Obama’s USDA ignored a plea from domestic sugar-using industries and kept quotas at their current restrictive level.

What about high-fructose corn syrup? Government policy artificially increases the price of sugar, but its corn subsidies artificially reduce the price of corn, which helps make high-fructose corn syrup more cost-effective in products like soft drinks. Major high-fructose corn syrup manufacturers, such as Archer Daniels Midland, benefit from federal programs and they spend lots of money lobbying policymakers to keep them going.

In his classic 1995 Cato policy analysis, “Archer Daniels Midland: A Case Study in Corporate Welfare,” James Bovard recounts ADM’s long-standing influence behind the government’s sugar racket:

Although ADM does not directly produce sugar, Congress and the USDA have created a price umbrella under which ADM’s production of high-fructose corn syrup – a sugar syrup – has become immensely profitable. ADM got into corn fructose production very heavily around 1974, just as sugar prices peaked on world markets. After ADM invested heavily to increase its capacity to produce high-fructose corn syrup ninefold, sugar prices plummeted from 65 cents to 8 cents per pound.

[ADM Chairman Dwayne] Andreas told Business Week in 1976, “If it was a mistake, I’d say it was my mistake.” Business Week noted, “One industry source suggests that ‘Dwayne looks at this as sort of a waiting game, basing his unflappability on the predicted passage of a new sugar bill.’ Such a bill is expected to provide an ‘umbrella’ – that is, to put supports under sugar at a level where high-fructose corn syrup will be at least reasonably profitable. Andreas contributed heavily to the 1968 and 1972 campaigns of Humphrey, Jackson and Nixon. With both parties covered, ADM may reasonably anticipate some legislative help.” That help came in the form of a new sugar bill in 1981.

For ADM, cheaper inputs (corn) plus a more expensive substitute (sugar) equals nice profits at U.S. taxpayer and consumer expense.

Pepsi Throwback will only be available for U.S. consumers to enjoy until February 22nd.  After that, Americans looking for Pepsi or Coke with real sugar in it will have to go to Mexico. Hopefully, Mexican politicians won’t put up a wall along the border to stop Americans from sneaking into the country and taking all their good soft drinks.

Update: Several readers have pointed out that “Passover Coke,” which contains sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup, can be found in certain metropolitan areas around Passover. Coke with sugar manufactured in Mexico can also be found in some Latin American grocery stores.