Obesity in America: Consumers, not companies, to blame

Illustration by Erin Logan

The Coca-Cola Company attracted controversy last week when it released a two-minute commercial chronicling its efforts against obesity in America. The ad, which critics decried as hypocritical, was aired as the company faced a lawsuit from the Center of Science in the Public Interest over the nutritional value of Coke’s Vitaminwater line of beverages.

At the heart of this debate is one question: Who exactly is responsible for reducing obesity in America?

Over the past two decades, obesity has seen a dramatic rise in America. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around one-third of all adults and 17 percent of children (12.5 million) in the U.S. are obese.

Critics like Barry Popkin, nutrition professor at UNC, place the blame entirely on the company.

The Coca-Cola Company still remains one of the major causes of obesity in the USA and globally, Popkin said in a Jan. 15 article in the Atlanta Business Chronicle.

In calling Coca-Cola the “major cause of obesity,” Popkin and other critics appear to absolve the consumer of any blame. They seem to expect companies like Coca-Cola to try to convince the consumer that the very product they are trying to sell is not good for them.

This is simply not feasible. Companies, on a fundamental level, exist to make a profit for their stockholders through sales. Such an expectation leads to a crazy scenario in which the company is telling you, as a consumer, not to buy the drinks they are trying to sell you.

I believe it is the responsibility of corporations like Coca-Cola to provide accurate information about products in an easily accessible manner, and once that is done, it is up to the consumer to decide whether to buy the product or not.

It is true that the company bears a responsibility to the consumer to keep its products healthy, but that responsibility has already been outlined by the FDA. Under penalty of law, companies are required to publish ingredients and any additional substances used in the preparation of their products in an accurate and accessible manner. After that, it’s the consumer’s responsibility to use that information to make an informed decision.

The ingredients of the various beverages Coca-Cola sells can all be found on the Coca-Cola website. The company has also started printing the calories, sugar content and other substances used in its beverages on the label of its bottles. That is pretty much as accessible as it can get.

Now, if the consumers buying the product cannot be bothered to get informed about it or choose to disregard the information and then later claim that Coca-Cola is being hypocritical by producing soda while claiming to fight obesity, the problem lies with the consumer.

Let’s consider the case of Vitaminwater. The Center of Science in the Public Interest claimed that Coca-Cola had lied to consumers by not divulging the fact that it is not a “health drink.” Coca-Cola countered this by saying that it had done nothing to claim it was.

While the morals of The Coca-Cola Company and the semantics on the case are very much open to interpretation, no one can dispute that the drink’s label already contained all the information consumers need make an informed decision about its nutritional value. If these unhappy customers had read that Vitaminwater contains 32 grams of sugar and just over 100 milligrams of actual vitamins, they should have concluded that Vitaminwater is not really healthy.

But consumers seem oblivious to it. The information is all there, and still consumers are too lazy to look it up. Claiming that a company is being hypocritical just because it is not spoon-feeding you information is downright ignorant, and I believe that humans have evolved beyond that point.

The issue of obesity in the U.S. is a serious one, and there is little consensus on how to solve the problem. However, the one thing everyone can agree on is that consumers must take the responsibility to be aware of what they eat and drink. Without that responsibility, any other means of dealing with the problem will be utterly futile.

That fact is where we falter. Obesity in America has nothing to do with the soda companies, but rather with the consumer who either seems to be unable to decide whether 32 grams of sugar per bottle is good for them or just doesn’t care. And there is nothing a soda company can do about that.

Som Kandlur is a sophomore in marketing and public relations. Please send comments to opinion@kstatecollegian.com.