Obesity: companies have to face up to their responsibilities

Obesity: companies have to face up to their responsibilities

Obesity. It's a big issue – and it's only going to get weightier.  

According to the anti-obesity campaign Let's Move, fronted by Michelle Obama, around 42% of Americans will be obese by 2030. On both sides of the Atlantic, politicians are increasingly aware and vocal about this public health time bomb. And, for businesses, who are susceptible to finger-pointing when it comes to this problem, it's a tricky time. 

So how to address it? How much should companies engage on the issue, at the risk of being seen to offer a full mea culpa over their role in this “epidemic”?

The American Beverage Association has taken an intriguing step. It emerged late last week that the group, which represents soft drinks heavyweights such as the The Coco-Cola Co and PepsiCo, has launched a campaign – Delivering Choices - to shout about the healthier options that many sections of the industry offer.

Drinks with less sugar, fewer calories and smaller portions are all being used to push the message that, as the campaign tag-line goes “America's beverage companies are delivering”.

The timing of the campaign is interesting. In January, New York's city health department launched its own anti-obesity campaign, Pouring on the Pounds, featuring cups of soft drinks on posters. Thus, some have suggested the ABA's campaign is a response to the Big Apple initiative. 

I say this, based on the amount of heat that could be generated in the US by a major new four-part HBO documentary series, The Weight of the Nation, that premiered over the weekend (perhaps another reason for the timing of the ABA's campaign?). Even a cursory glance at the website reveals it's not merely a TV show; it's a “cause”, with people being encouraged to host a screening of the series and connect through all the usual social media channels. All this, as part of a bid to tackle America's obesity “epidemic”.

And judging by the comments last week in an interview by former PepsiCo president and CEO boss Phil Marineau, soft drinks firm are unlikely to be painted in a positive light by the show.

Marineau stressed that he hadn't worked in the industry for 12 years and, in a stance that suggests he may have 'turned' since leaving PepsiCo, admitted that sugary drinks were part of the obesity problem. He even went as far as to claim that, if the world was started again, soft drinks might not be invented. 

Quite a statement. I've occasionally heard the same said of alcohol – and this leads to another issue that soft drinks companies, and alcohol firms, face when addressing the public health issues linked to their products.

Critics and health lobbyists argue that there is a fundamental conflict of interest in allowing these companies any input on addressing the issues. Effectively, the argument runs, they are businesses whose interest is selling more of their product to increase the returns for shareholders. It's a reasonable point, but at the same time, companies have to react to their customers – and most indicators point to a growing desire for 'healthier' versions of soft drinks. Being seen as a 'responsible' company is also becoming increasingly important, as expectations around ethics become more important to consumers.   

Ultimately, many big firms are in the strange position of spending huge amounts of money on promoting their 'ethical' credentials, yet having it thrown back at them by critics in the health lobby. However, as firms will know, the people they really have to convince are the governments.

In the UK, the current health minister Andrew Lansley appears to have a sympathetic approach, offering food and drinks companies the chance to be part of a Responsibility Deal. A broad spread of businesses have had to make commitments, in areas such as reducing alcohol units in drinks, to avoid the heavy hand of legislation.   

So, coming back to the ABA's campaign, I'd suggest this is a sensible move. Firms with a role to play in helping such heavyweight nations as the US and UK tackle obesity have to engage. The political heat is only going to rise as more people become more aware of the choices they can make over what they put into their body, whether it be food, soft drinks or alcohol.

And, if you needed any more convincing of the mounting zealotry around this issue, President Obama was urged by a group of doctors and dieticians last week to stop eating fast-food in public as it could be sending out the wrong message to families.

You have been warned.