The New York City Health Department, locked in a court fight with an industry group that includes Coca-Cola Co. (KO) and PepsiCo Inc. (PEP) over a sugary soda ban, is now going after sports drinks, teas and energy drinks that it says can be just as deadly.
New television ads and subway placards to debut today flash pictures of fruit-flavored drinks containing added sugar, saying the healthier-sounding choices can cause obesity and diabetes. One of the TV ads depicts a patient with amputated toes from diabetes, an overweight man slugging a neon-blue sports drink and a surgeon picking at a diseased heart with tweezers.
“Non-soda sugary drinks have been marketed as being healthier, with references to fruit and antioxidants, vitamins and energy,” New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley, a medical doctor, said in a telephone interview. “We’re trying to warn them that these drinks can have as much or more sugar and calories as soda because we still have a major epidemic of obesity.”
Beverage makers have come under increasing pressure in recent years as officials try to curb high obesity rates in the U.S. by slowing consumption of sugary soft drinks. New York’s newest ads broaden the battle lines to non-carbonated and energy drinks, which have been bright spots for the industry in the midst of an eight-year decline in soda sales.
“Once again, the New York City Health Department is oversimplifying the complex set of factors behind obesity,” Chris Gindlesperger, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association, said before seeing the new ads. “Selectively picking out common grocery items like sugar-sweetened beverages as a cause of obesity is misleading. The public does not believe that solutions to obesity are as simplistic as a ban on the size of just one item that people consume, nor should they.”
Farley said he considers drinks with more than 25 calories per eight ounces to be too sugary. While a 20-ounce Coca-Cola has 240 calories, the same size Minute Maid lemonade with 3 percent lemon juice content has 260 calories, Farley said.
He noted that a 16-ounce orange-mango drink, with 30 percent juice content and 200 percent of the recommended daily allowance of vitamins A and D can be misleading. It also lists high-fructose corn syrup as the second ingredient after water and contains 230 calories. A 20-ounce Red Bull energy drink that “vitalizes body and mind” contains 275 calories, he said.
The expanded campaign comes before showdown between beverage makers and the city in a New York state appellate court. The city has appealed a permanent injunction issued March 11 to stop a health-department law pushed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg that would cap the size of sugary soft drinks sold in restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums and arenas at 16 ounces (473 milliliters) a cup. Oral arguments will be heard June 11, according to the city and the beverage association.
New York Supreme Court Justice Milton Tingling in Manhattan said the law was improperly enacted and arbitrary in its effects after affected industry groups called it “unprecedented interference.” The judge also held the law violated the separation of powers because the city council, not the mayor, should promulgate such measures.
Farley said the new ads are not timed with the appeal, adding that the city is “optimistic” the ban will be upheld.
“We feel that Justice Tingling’s decision was strong, and we’re confident in the ruling,” the ABA’s Gindlesperger said. “We look forward to the appellate court decision.”
The city’s new non-carbonated drink offensive, which runs through June, includes another TV ad that targets fruit-flavored kids drinks. The ads suggest water, seltzer, unsweetened tea, fat-free milk and fresh fruit as alternatives. The ads are part of the city’s four-year “Pouring on the Pounds” campaign that has compared sweetened soft drinks to packets of sugar and globs of fat.
New York City has seen a drop in sugar-sweetened beverage consumption during its campaign, Farley said. The percentage of adults who said they drink one or more sugar-sweetened beverage a day declined from almost 36 percent in 2007 to almost 30 percent in 2011, according to a city tracking poll. Of youths surveyed in a similar poll, that percentage declined to almost 21 percent in 2011 from about 28 percent in 2005.
The beverage industry fought back a year ago with a series of subway ads of its own touting lower-calorie options and package sizes as progress against obesity. The American Beverage Association called the city’s ads at the time discriminatory for singling out a single product.
Last month, Coca-Cola said it would expand calorie labeling to the front of all packages and reiterated its pledge not to advertise to children under 12 anywhere. The plan, which includes expanding physical activity programs and an emphasis on low- and no-calorie drinks, will apply to the more than 200 countries where it operates.
Beverage makers have used sports drinks, teas and energy drinks to help offset soda sales declines in the roughly $70 billion U.S. soft drink industry, which still generates the bulk of profits. Some consumers have shunned sugar and artificial sweeteners, which has taken the largest toll on colas.
PepsiCo, Coca-Cola and the beverage association spent as much as $70 million on lobbying and issue ads between 2009 and early 2012, according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest. In that time, at least 30 states proposed aggressive excise taxes on soft drinks, all of which failed amid industry push back.
Mayor Bloomberg has also advocated for state taxes on sugary beverages. He is founder and majority owner of Bloomberg LP, the parent company of Bloomberg News.
Almost 36 percent of U.S. adults and about 17 percent of youths are considered obese, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. Obesity is measured by using weight and height to calculate a number called body mass index, according to the CDC. An adult who is 5 feet, 9 inches tall and weighs 203 pounds or more is considered obese.
Advocates of sugary drink taxes say it is an effective way to reverse the obesity trend. Opponents say drink taxes are a money grab. The real cause of excessive weight, they say, are too many calories of any type going in and too few going out.
Whatever the cause, obesity in the U.S. comes at a “staggering” financial cost, the CDC has said. Everything from treatments for diabetes to lost work by obese employees cost Americans about $147 billion in 2008, according to one estimate cited by the agency.
Coca-Cola rose 2.1 percent to $40.81 at the close in New York. PepsiCo rose 0.8 percent to $81.40.
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