I received a call recently inviting me to a small group lunch in Los Angeles with the Governor to discuss strategies to improve healthy eating and physical activity. Governor Schwarzenegger had planned a statewide summit to address these issues, which was postponed and he didn't want to wait to take action—this was rather impressive. Many legislators would neither know nor care about such issues, let alone initiate follow up when a conference was postponed. I was, of course, happy to join the meeting.
I've had opportunities to meet the Governor in the past, but never in a small meeting. He was relaxed and comfortable, seemingly in any situation. He speaks his mind without airs or presumption, and listens to what others have to say. There were about a dozen of us with varied expertise and backgrounds, including the Governor and his staff, staff from the Foundation hosting the meeting, the director of the California Governor's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports, a few colleagues from the Strategic Alliance for Healthy Food and Activity environments, and a representative from Coca Cola.
Those of us from Strategic Alliance emphasized that government and corporations have a strong responsibility to ensure health and well-being in our communities. The Governor was with us, conceptually. He joined in outrage that the majority of children in California don't have fresh drinking water available in school lunchrooms. He was thoughtful about the legislative remedies that could ensure that schoolyards and facilities remain open to communities after hours to encourage communal gathering and increased activity.
The rub came when we were discussing Coca Cola. Harold Goldstein, (Executive Director of California Center for Public Health Advocacy), brought in pitchers of sugar to visually represent how much the average kid consumes each year from drinking soda. The Coke representative talked about their contributions to the LA community and replied that soda itself is not a bad food; like any food, it can be over-consumed. (‘Over-consumed!' I thought). The evolution from a ‘soda fountain' treat once-a-week to a multiple-soda-a-day habit didn't develop out of individual choice. It was a well-constructed marketing campaign that helps drive the diabetes, heart disease, and stroke epidemics in the US. Coke is IT, the REAL THING. Now we have an enormous part of the population regularly consuming, and giving to their small children, a drink that doesn't contribute anything good, and does a lot of bad.
The Governor has been, perhaps, the most courageous major Republican politician in taking on the soda industry. In this case, he talked about Coke as an ‘old friend.' "My mother-in-law Eunice Shriver always said that when it came to the Special Olympics [which she created], when government wasn't there, Coke always was." (I had to wonder if Coke would have been as supportive if I had made the same request instead of one of the Kennedys). Good old Coke! Almost like a stodgy old relative who may be a bit politically incorrect right now but should be respected for, after all, having a good heart.
However, it goes deeper than if Coke has ever done the right thing. Coke is a corporation, not a person. Yet such corporations endear themselves to us so that we do treat them like people. Their marketing is aimed at making their brand familiar, likable, a part of what makes our life good (old shoe familiarity). Drinking Coke has become an accepted, celebrated, social norm. But coke is not a good friend. In fact, any good friend would tell you to stop doing something that increases your likelihood—substantially—of developing a chronic disease. As Marion Nestle, author of Food Politics points out, corporations are not aimed at achieving either good or bad in their work. When they have stockholders, corporations are required BY LAW to make profits at all costs. Coke stands for what's good for it's profits, and if a side effect is more diabetes or heart disease, that isn't exactly Coke's concern. Some progressive thinkers have said that changing policy around the rights and responsibilities of corporations is essential for healthy political change.
At the Governor's meeting we discussed ways to be inclusive: there must be some areas we could all agree on. The representative from Coke was anxious to agree on the importance of physical activity, to play a role (neighborly) in strategies to enhance our parks, open our schoolyards, encourage more school-time for physical activity. The drive for a win-win situation was palpable in the room, at least among some of the participants (can't we all get along?). But it wasn't exactly a ‘We' in the room—it was a group of people whose very charge is to enhance health, and a corporation whose charge is to make profit regardless of, and in this case, in opposition to health. WIN-WIN? I'm not sure, despite my creativity, that I can or want to identify a way that Coke wins.
When we began to address smoking, we faced the same challenges. Smoking was built into the fabric of our society and was an entrenched social norm. Everyone said we were crazy to take on the industry and wrong to interfere with what people wanted. In reality, the tobacco industry had convinced people that they wanted to smoke, even though it was killing them. Tobacco, like Coke, was seen as a ‘neighborly industry' (who, at the time, was known for contributing a lot of money to battered women's shelters until it was revealed that they spent more money advertising their donations than on contributions).
In the early stages of the fight against smoking, we were also encouraged to find an outcome that both health and industry could agree on. Instead of focusing on policy change, tobacco wanted us to promote individual education and smoking cessation clinics. Tobacco lobbyists news knew that targeting individuals, rather than changing laws, would have little impact on reducing smoking, and therefore on their profits. They even tried to bribe me while I was shaping the nations' first multi-city no-smoking ordinance in a partnership with heart, lung, and cancer societies. The tobacco representatives offered me recognition, resources for our community, and money to stop doing that distasteful policy work. [I describe my experience fighting tobacco in a brief new video we prepared on why policy change is necessary to prevent chronic disease and violence].
Our first policy success on no-smoking laws was in fact a small one in the process of getting smoking out of our environment (as are our initial efforts to pass policy around soda). We've subsequently seen successful no-smoking ordinances passed around the country, as well as substantial outcomes from taxes on cigarettes to reduce demand and fund further prevention efforts (much like a soda fee could accomplish). Policy change, corporations understand, fundamentally alters the nature of what industry can do. We must continue to use legislation and community-level strategies to improve equity and health. Trying to find a win-win is never a possibility when the real winner is a corporation that benefits from our bad health outcomes. And it's never a necessity. Coke is not a ‘nice guy' after all.