Just the Answer - Susan Neely
As soft drinks producers in Europe introduce tougher self-regulatory measures limiting the sale of CSDs in schools, this month's Just the Answer interview is with Susan Neely, president and CEO of the American Beverage Association (ABA) which represents US soft drinks producers in the fierce debate on the same subject stateside.
J-D: There is speculation that lawsuits will be filed against soft drink producers seeking a ban on the sale of carbonated soft drinks (CSDs) in schools. What chance of success would a lawsuit like that have?
Neely: Litigation would be a totally counter-productive way of addressing and solving a complex social challenge like child obesity. The challenge we have is getting our kids to have a balanced diet and to get more exercise, although that is easier said than done.
Certainly, litigation that demonises one product is not the way to go. We feel fairly confident that the industry is acting responsibly and we're doing a number of things to promote a wide variety of beverages for children and adults. This association has worked closely with the three major concentrate companies and we feel that we're very well-positioned to anticipate any legal challenges
J-D: The consumption of carbonated soft drinks is cited as a direct cause of rising childhood obesity. What is your organisation's view of that contention?
Neely: Lawyers can carry on all they want in a court of law but it's not soft drinks. Child obesity is not caused by students drinking soft drinks - it's a broader, more complex problem. To say one food or beverage causes child obesity doesn't pass the common sense test nor does it pass the factual test.
J-D: But has the growing concern about child obesity and related health issues had an impact on CSD sales in schools?
Neely: We put out a study last month; we used independent sales data to determine exactly what is sold in schools. Between 2002 and 2004, sales of full-calorie CSDs fell 24%, while sales of other beverage choices were up significantly. These trends are a consequence of what is happening in the larger marketplace. Students are no different from other consumers; there is more choice available and there are a lot more beverage options. Another interesting finding is that high school students only purchase one 12oz can of full-calorie CSDs a week.
J-D: Does that suggest that when "healthier" alternatives are made available, children will choose them?
Neely: It's all about having more beverage choices, more a function of there being greater variety. People are also generally more health-conscious. Indeed, the ABA board of directors approved a policy in August aiming at a responsible approach to selling drinks in school vending machines. That was based on listening to parents; the policy was reflected from the parents' point of view.
J-D: But if you believe carbonated soft drinks are not the problem, why are you introducing these restrictions?
Neely: Parents want more control over what their children are offered during the school day. By the time their children reach high school, there is a difference in parents' minds. High school children are able to drive a car, for instance, so they're capable of choosing from a wider array of beverages. Parents thought it was a good policy - they prefer a voluntary solution, not a government-imposed solution. So, we've taken a responsible approach, listened to parents and come up with a policy that hits the mark.
J-D: Why is it important for the industry to be seen to be calling for such limits?
Neely: All schools are required to have a wellness policy in place by 1 July so we have to make sure that school districts are aware of policy that the industry has developed. Schools will be required under federal law to develop a wellness policy and it's better to have a policy that you can put on the table.
The solution is to always listen to the most important people, people who buy your products and in a school context, that's parents. They have strongly-held views so you won't go wrong being on the side of the parents, who ultimately drive policy in the US school system. My experience in public policy and my experience as a mother of two children is that I feel so strongly that soft drinks are great for my kids at the right time.
J-D: And what action is the ABA taking to support its members?
Neely: The ABA combines the three major concentrate companies, then you have the bottlers represented. Bottlers are a critical component of the association, particularly on decision-making for school vending policy. Bottlers are at the interface; they have a huge interest in policy as well. Our role is to direct policymakers at the local, state or national level. We focus on forming an industry position where we, as an industry, decide it would be more credible than acting as individuals.
J-D: How far will Coke and Pepsi have to adapt to the trend of falling sales of CSDs?
Neely: Generally speaking, the big three concentrate companies are way ahead on these trends. They're very tuned in to consumer tastes. They offer a huge array of products, especially since the explosion in the non-carbonated arena. It's a very interesting time to be in the business. They are very well-positioned from a business standpoint to address consumer tastes and there is still a huge future for full-cal CSDs.
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