City Needs a Harder Stance on Soft Drinks

Written by on October 9, 2012 in Wellness - No comments

The Cola Wars used to simply refer to the battle between Pepsi and Coke for soft drink supremacy. Not anymore.

In search of a healthier, more productive workforce, some employers have removed sodas from their vending machines and banned them from cafeterias and catered lunches.

Others have hit employees with a “soda tax” to incent them to quench their thirst in a healthy way or pay a financial penalty.
I must say as a fully recovered sodaholic, I deeply believe that removing this sugary American staple is a good move by employers.

That’s why I was disappointed to read about how the City of Chicago was approaching this issue with its workforce. You can check out the full text here. In a nutshell, the City has passed over other alternatives in favor of publishing “calorie information” of vending machine items and creating a healthy competition with workers from San Antonio.

According to the article, “Chicago will compete against the city workers from San Antonio for a $5 million grant from the American Beverage Association to see which workforce is healthier.” The new program was announced alongside representatives from three major beverage companies. Hmmmm.

The City of Chicago has invested heavily in health and wellness initiatives in recent months, and it seems its leadership has a genuine commitment to improving the health of Chicago workers. But this stance on soda falls short.

The City stated that it made a strategic choice to focus on personal responsibility versus penalties or policies. While responsibility is a critical component of driving improved wellness, our country’s health statistics show that we’re a long ways away from being able and/or willing to “act responsibly.”

Here are three big reasons I think Chicago needs to reevaluate its stance on soda.

#1 The workplace should be a model of health

If we’re trusting employees to “do the right thing”, maybe we should also have beer on tap and giant tubs of candy scattered throughout the office? Oh, wait, some companies have actually done that!

If employers want to teach employees to be responsible and to make healthy choices, one of the most effective things they can do is model those behaviors in the workplace. Quite simply, if you believe soda is bad for employees, don’t have soda in your vending machines. Otherwise, you are sending mixed messages to your workforce.

People spend more than half their waking hours at work. If an employer can create a healthy environment, which includes offering only healthy food and drink, employees are more likely to a. avoid unhealthy choices while working and b. develop new, healthier eating habits that follow them home.

#2 They are missing the point

Excess calorie intake is merely the tip of the sword. The real problem is the sugar, silly. I’m not a nutritionist, so I won’t break down the chemistry of your typical soda. Let’s just say as a health concern, the calories are the least of your worries. Many leading experts have identified over indulgence in sugar as being a significant contributor to obesity and diabetes, among other conditions and diseases. It’s hard to find a more concentrated jolt of sugar, unless you’ve got a box of donuts handy.

Additionally, the end goal of the City’s wellness program is to improve the health of its workforce. In isolation, this effort will do little to move them toward that objective. Alternatively, a more aggressive push for a soda-free workplace and ultimately, a soda-free workforce, would.

#3 There are more effective ways to communicate

Some workers aren’t health literate enough to read labels or translate the true meaning of ingredients and calorie counts. Many others have firmly demonstrated that they really don’t care what the label says. Cigarette cartons tell you that they are cancer waiting to happen, and yet that alone doesn’t typically dissuade most people from smoking.

Whether sodas are still on the premises or not, you need to use some creativity in your communication:

Publicize the effects of sugary drinks on the body by using educational posters like the one pictured here to get the point across.

Be dramatic: Remove sodas from vending machines for a day and replace them with bags of sugar.

Put a powerful video, such as Death by Sugar, on a loop in your snack or kitchen area.

Whatever you do, keep in mind that behavior change requires more than the sharing of nutrition facts.

As an aside, competitions are great, and I highly recommend using them in your overall wellness engagement strategy. The fact that this competition is sponsored by companies who make the beverages in question, well that’s a topic for another day. Let’s just say they really shouldn’t be involved in the discussion, and leave it at that.

So why am I so amped up on soda? For one, I do believe that it is a major culprit of poor diet in this country and a major contributor to several health crises, including childhood obesity. Separately, I’m passionate about effective workplace wellness, and I think this is a great example of a well-intentioned effort that will not deliver positive returns. Creating a culture of health is a delicate endeavor. Sometimes the small things, like soda, can undo your big plans.

What do you think about Chicago’s stance on soft drinks? 

Leave a Comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.