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Coke’s Obesity Ad: A “Brilliant Defensive” Move, NYT’s Bittman Says

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Coca-Cola (KO), the world’s largest beverage company, unveiled a new TV ad Monday night that addressed the soda maker’s involvement in the nation’s obesity epidemic. The 2-minute long commercial titled “Coming Together” debuted on national cable news; a second video called “Be OK” will broadcast Wednesday evening during “American Idol.”

By airing these ads, Coca-Cola has decided to directly respond to attacks by the health community that drinking soda leads to weight gain and obesity.

Related: Coke, Pepsi Join War on Obesity: “Calories Count”

Nearly 36% of U.S. adults and 17% of U.S. children aged 2 to 19 years old are obese, according to the Center for Disease Control (CDC). The CDC estimates that medical costs associated with obesity were $147 billion in 2009; medical costs for obese individuals were $1,429 higher than those of normal weight that same year.

Lawmakers and public health advocates have been exhorting Americans to alter their diets and attitude toward food and sugary beverages as obesity rates rise in the U.S. Obesity has been linked to cancer, heart disease, diabetes and other life-threatening illnesses.

Related: Obesity to Cost Taxpayers ‘Billions of Dollars’: Weight Watchers CEO

According to Coca-Cola, the ads were designed to highlight the company’s “ongoing commitment to deliver more beverage choices…clearly communicate the calorie content of its products” and encourage “everyone to be mindful that all calories count in managing” one’s weight.

Steve Cahillane, president of Coca-Cola Americas, told CNBC Tuesday that the company wants to play a greater role in the obesity debate but denied that soda consumption was to blame.

“We don’t believe we caused the obesity epidemic, we know we haven’t…but we want to be part of the solution,” he said. “It’s not a simple issue and…we have to make people aware of what they’re putting in their bodies from a calorie standpoint.”

Related: Best Places to Live to Battle Your Bulge

A November 2012 study conducted by the CDC’s National Center for Health Statistics determined that sugary drinks account for 6% of American adults’ calorie intake. The Center for Science in the Public Interest, an organization that fights for government policies and corporate practices that promote healthy diets, says soda and sweetened beverages are the No. 1 source of calories for kids in the U.S. Sales of carbonated beverages in the U.S. in 2011 totaled $75.7 billion, up from $74.2 billion in 2010 according to industry trade publication Beverage Digest.

The average American adult consumed 44.6 gallons of carbonated beverages in 2011, down from 54 gallons in 1998, says Beverage Digest Editor John Sicher. The decrease reflects Americans’ growing preference for bottled water and sports drinks and not necessarily a change in dietary habits, he notes.

Mark Bittman, food columnist at The New York Times and the author of many books including “Food Matters,” says in an interview with The Daily Ticker that Coca-Cola’s new advertisements are “brilliant” but are an attempt to shed the company’s unhealthy image.

“Coke and other beverage companies recognize that they’re being painted as villains,” Bittman says. “They’re on the defensive.”

Related: McDonald’s Menu Makeover, NY Soda Ban Don’t Go Far Enough: NYT’s Mark Bittman

Soda may not be the only cause of obesity but it does “bear a lot of responsibility for higher rates of obesity,” he argues. Sugary beverages do not satiate one's appetite and are digested differently than real food, he explains. Cutting soda consumption directly leads to weight loss and the calories in soda offer little if any health benefits, he notes.

“Those are calories that are not doing you anything good,” Bittman says.

Bittman supports New York City Mayor Michael’s Bloomberg ban on sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces in restaurants, movie theaters, stadiums and food carts (which goes into effect this March). He says Americans’ attitude toward soda and sugar-sweetened beverages will not dramatically change until lawmakers implement soda taxes and actively promote and encourage healthier dietary practices.

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