AT) We love your credo "afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted." Now, junk food is often called "comfort food," and certainly Coke would fall under the category of junk food. So they'd obviously prefer the more innocuous label of "comfort," and also spend billions to link themselves to words like "love" and "harmony." Given how well known the brand is, and how people associate sales and market domination with success and esteem ("might makes right"), did you have any trepidation in proposing this book, and do the facts simply leap out to be heard?
MB) I first heard the allegations against Coke back in 2004, and was so surprised that a company associated with the highest values of peace, love, and harmony, could be accused of things like murder and water depletion and pollution. It seemed like a story with a number of natural contradictions that bore further investigation. Since then, whenever I have written about Coca-Cola I have been inundated with more letters and emails from readers than for stories on any other topic. It’s shown me what a chord Coke strikes with people, and made me see the company as the perfect vessel through which to explore the larger contradictions about corporate capitalism.
AT) Coke is like a religion to many in the U.S.. So it will surprise people to learn that they are part of religious ceremonies in third world countries, and that they also endorse bullying tactics and even murder against people who form or attempt to join unions in their bottling plants overseas. Can you cite the most egregious examples of how greed controls Coca-Cola as a corporation?
MB) The most shocking allegations against the company are those involving murder and intimidation of union members, most dramatically in Colombia, but also in other countries including Guatemala, Turkey, Indonesia, and Pakistan. In the case of Colombia, the murdered union members were in some ways casualties caught in the crossfire in an ongoing civil war between guerillas and paramilitaries. However, there’s evidence that Coca-Cola plant managers met with paramilitaries and condoned or encouraged the violence during times when workers were advocating for better working conditions. While no one is saying that executives with the Coca-Cola Company in Atlanta were ordering hits, the company has repeatedly refused to cooperate in any independent investigations that might uncover the truth, including apparently one recommended by the company’s own top lawyer.
AT) The India water rights story is an eye opener too, especially since Coke pretends to be environmentally friendly, even as they sell bottled water here. It sounds like lies on top of lies. . . Dasani was refiltered tap water? Did they also claim that all those plastic bottles they were producing had little or no effect on the environment?
MB) Coke has made a lot of noise about its new environmental awareness in the past few years, especially since the criticism of the wastefulness of plastic bottles used for bottled water. Much of its efforts have, however, been just that—a lot of noise. In fact, it has actually reduced its pledges for using recycled content in the past few years, and consistently lobbied against bottle bills, the most effective means of increasing recycling rates. Coke has also been criticized for depleting and polluting water supplies of villages in countries such as India and Mexico. However, in part the company’s response has been to implement “rainwater harvesting” structures, which simply don’t work in communities that see little rainfall anyway. They’ve stepped up conservation efforts in river basins throughout the world, but those happen to be far away from the places affected by their bottling plants, again, doing little to solve the problem.
AT) Beyond the human rights abuses, many doctors cite Coke and Pepsi as being a leading cause of metabolic syndrome which leads to diabetes and a huge cost for the American health care system. How does Coke succeed in resisting a tax to help defer those costs?
MB) Over the past decade, there has been a great deal of research linking soft-drink consumption to a childhood obesity epidemic and increased rates of diabetes. One of the most convincing studies, published by the British health journal The Lancet, found that each can of soda added to a child’s daily diet increased the chances of becoming obese by 60 percent. Taxing soda as a way to defray healthcare costs is an idea that has ebbed and flowed over the years, and some states to actually have soft-drink taxes on the books. Whenever the idea arises, however, you can count on Coke and other soft drink makers to lobby heavily against it. Most recently, the American Beverage Association spent some $3 million for highly visible public ad campaign against a penny-an-ounce soda tax propose by Governor Patterson in New York, defeating the measure.
AT) How good are Coke's lawyers? Have you done any research on them?
MB) Like most multinational corporations, Coke spends big bucks to hire high-powered corporate law firms to defend itself against any allegations of impropriety. These lawyers are smart and they have deep pockets, and are often able to stall cases in court for years, as they did in the case of the Colombian workers who sued the company in U.S. court. With enough of a public campaign, however, citizens with limited resources can be successful, as shown by the efforts by parents, teachers, and students against exclusive soda contracts in schools. Despite years of lobbying by soda companies, that campaign resulted in state and federal legislation limiting junk food in school hallways and a voluntary agreement by soda companies to end contracts and take out sugary soda.
AT) Coke in the schools. . . what's the current status, and how is Coke fighting back?
MB) Through the American Beverage Association, Coke and Pepsi signed a voluntary agreement with the Clinton Foundation to finally cut the exclusive contracts and remove sugar-sweetened sodas in 2006. The deal, however, was weaker than another agreement soda companies were simultaneously negotiating with health advocates that would have taken out sports drinks and soda advertising as well, in addition to being legally enforceable in court. Since then, evidence on whether the voluntary ABA agreement has been successful has been mixed. The industry’s own data has declared 100 percent compliance by schools; however, an independent academic survey last year found that only 30 percent of schools were implementing the new guidelines, while 55 percent were not even aware of them.
AT) What are a couple myths people believe about Coke?
MB) One of the biggest “myths” about Coca-Cola actually turns out to be true; ample evidence shows Coke did once contain cocaine, at least for the first 10 years of its existence. However, the amount was probably only about 1/20th or 1/30th of a modern “dose,” not enough for imbibers to get much of a kick. Many other urban legends about Coke—such as the “mouse in a Coke bottle” myth and claims that Coke dissolves a tooth left in a glass overnight—have been debunked as untrue.
AT) I interviewed Dr. Mark Hyman, who told me the high fructose corn syrup used in soda contains mercury in the manufacturing process, and is more addictive than sugar. What is Coke's reason for using HFCS, and do they deny its harmful effects?
MB) I haven’t heard specifically about the mercury claim, however, I can tell you that both Coke and Pepsi switched to high-fructose corn syrup in the 1980s as a way to drive down costs. (Corn, subsidized by the U.S. government, is cheaper than cane sugar, subject to the whims of the international sugar market.) Doctors and health advocates are mixed on whether or not HFCS is any worse for the body than straight sugar; some studies have shown that it is more prone to cause diabetes and obesity since fructose it is not as readily broken down by the body as sucrose. However, other respected doctors and advocates dismiss those claims, believing that “sugar is sugar” in whatever its form it takes. Coke, of course, takes the latter view.
AT) What feedback have you received so far, and what do you hope people come away with in reading this book?
MB) I’ve been surprised at how positive all of the feedback I’ve received has been so far. Even among people who drink Coke, I think, there is a real skepticism about the business practices of the company, particularly in the wake of the negative publicity surrounding soft drinks and obesity in the last few years. I hope that my book will cause people to further question those practices and to become more aware of the “playbook” that all corporations follow when confronted with evidence of their lack of social responsibility. I certainly don’t think Coke is some big, evil corporation—at the end of the day, it provides a momentary pause of refreshment, and I think it’s important not to lose sight of that. On the other hand, a company that bases a great deal of its success to an image of promoting international peace and harmony should live up to that standard in all of its practices. If it doesn’t, then it is up to all of those affected by it to hold it accountable.