2014 Stories on Health Impact of Corporations-Part II

Last week, I wrote about some of the 2014 news stories that revealed how the auto, pharmaceutical and alcohol industries had harmed health. In this post, I turn to some of the top stories in last year’s coverage of the other industries Corporations and Health Watch follows: food and beverages, firearms and tobacco.


Coca-Cola Sales Go Flat


Early this month, the New York Times reported that Coca-Cola says it will cut between 1,600 and 1,800 jobs in coming months to trim costs. These moves are part of an ongoing restructuring to reflect declining sales of Coca Cola in the United States—and in many other parts of the world. In October, Coca-Cola announced it hoped to cut costs by $3 billion a year through a variety of measures. The savings would be used to pay for more marketing to drive up beverage sales.


But throughout the year, business analysts have been questioning Coke’s strategy. For example, Bloomberg BusinessWeek carried a story called Coke Confronts Its Big Fat Problem. It concluded:


Americans may not have figured out the answer to the obesity epidemic, but for years they’ve pointed to Coca-Cola and other soda as one of the causes. Coke has tried fighting against this. It’s tried ignoring it. Now it accepts this as a reality… (The company) has to persuade people to drink Coca-Cola again, even if they don’t guzzle it like water the way they did before.


Fortune published Coca-Cola’s Problems Reflect a Giant Losing Relevance. Its harsh assessment is that Coca Cola has failed in:


recognizing that the big problem is the leadership team’s fixation with defending its Coke brand, rather than finding new growth businesses as the market moves away from carbonated soft drinks.  This problem requires the CEO and his entire management team to step up their strategy efforts, not just fire the leader who has been updating the branding mechanisms.


For public health, Coke’s failures are our success. The continuing decline in soda consumption is in part a reflection of the health policy and education campaigns that have changed the image of soda that Coke has tried to market.   Declining sales at Coke now hold the promise of less diabetes and diet-related diseases in the future. Key questions for the coming years are will Coke’s fizzed up advertising be able to delay the shift in tastes and to what extent will the company apply tobacco industry response to flat sales in the US by stepping up marketing in Asia, Africa and Latin America.


Big Tobacco Takes Up Vaping


When e-cigarettes were introduced a few years ago, it wasn’t clear if the makers of this product would take business away from the tobacco industry or become a subsidiary of the nicotine delivery business. Last year, most of the world’s largest tobacco companies expanded their e-cigarette business, suggesting the emergence of an integrated Big Nicotine business. For example, according to Bloomberg Businessweek, R.J. Reynolds in 2014 scaled up marketing of its Vuse brand of e-cigarettes from four states to a national market. Lorillard sells Blu eCigs and controls about 40 percent of the current market. Altria Group owns two e-cig brands and plans to expand nationally as well. While some public health advocates continue to argue that e-cigarettes have the potential to reduce tobacco use, others make the case that the increasing control of the e-cigarette market by transnational tobacco companies does not bode well for this product being used to advance public health or reduce the demand for nicotine products. As public health advocates debate our positions on e-cigarettes, we need to keep our eyes not just on the theoretical potential of a new technology but on the actual practices of the industry that makes and markets the product.


Gun Fight Turns to the States


Just as policy battles on abortion and gay marriage have bounced between state and federal levels over the last decade, the fight on gun safety, long played out on the federal level, has now bounced back to the state level. Earlier this month, the New York Times noted that,


“the gun control movement, blocked in Congress and facing mounting losses in federal elections, is tweaking its name, refining its goals and using the same-sex marriage movement as a model to take the fight to voters on the state level.”


Last November, Washington state voters approved a ballot measure that will require broader background checks on gun buyers and gun safety advocates are looking to add ballot measures in 2016 in Nevada, Arizona, Maine and Oregon.


At the same time, gun rights advocates are using state legislatures to seek to overturn federal guns laws. According to one report, eight states have recently passed laws voiding federal firearms regulations and in the last decade more than 200 such bills have been considered by states.


A recent report by the Law Center to Prevent Gun Violence found that states with stronger gun regulation have lower gun death rates, and the states with weaker regulation have higher gun death rates. As gun safety advocates study the successes of the gay marriage movement in using state level successes to win national victories, they’ll need to devise strategies that choose the settings and the messages that can ultimately lead to national successes in reducing gun violence.