By STEPHANIE STROM New York Times
Big beverage makers including Pepsico and Coca-Cola are retooling their vending machines to let consumers know the number of calories in the drinks available to buy.
The program, which will add calorie counts and more low-calorie and no-calorie drinks to vending machines, will first appear in municipal buildings in Chicago and San Antonio early next year. It represents the latest effort by the industry to head off mounting criticism of its products as one of the chief villains responsible for the nation’s obesity crisis.
The American Beverage Association’s plan is to take its effort, called Calories Count, nationwide after seeing how it works in the two cities whose government employees are engaged in a competition to promote wellness programs, the industry group and the cities announced on Monday.
The beverage association had been working on plans to add calorie counts to its vending machines when Chicago’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel, called looking for a grant from the association to support a wellness challenge he wanted to mount with another city. Mr. Emanuel is trying to lower Chicago’s health care costs by encouraging municipal employees to sign up for a new health care plan that requires them to set goals for their health.
The cities are vying to see whose workers can make the greatest progress in improving their overall health, determined by a variety of factors, from weight loss to lowering blood pressure. The winning city receives $5 million from the beverage association foundation, and employees can win $1,000 for making the biggest improvements in their health.
“We believe partnerships like this — those which involve government, industry and civil society — can have a meaningful impact on the obesity issue,” Steven A. Cahillane, president and chief executive of Coca-Cola Refreshments, the unit of Coca-Cola responsible for its vending machine business, said in a statement.
Critics of the soda companies generally applauded the announcement. “People tend to overconsume products with sugar and for these companies to be doing something that may decrease consumption of their sugared beverages surprises me,” said Kelly D. Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University. “But it does seem to me to be a positive move.”
Sales of carbonated sodas have been declining for the last decade, as American consumers have embraced new choices of beverages and, more recently, become more aware of how much sugar they contain. Coke and Pepsi have greatly expanded their portfolios, adding bottled waters, juices and sports drinks that have helped reduce their reliance on their core brands, though they still defend them.
In a note Monday morning, John Sicher, the publisher of Beverage Digest, an influential trade publication, said he thought the new effort might be a way to get consumers to drink more of their low-calorie and no-calorie drinks.
Mr. Sicher said sales through vending machines accounted for 12.5 percent of the total volume of carbonated soda sold annually.
The trend toward calorie disclosure is already under way nationally at fast food and other chain restaurants. All restaurants with more than 20 locations must post calorie counts on their menus, under the health care bill upheld this summer by the Supreme Court, though the regulations have not been completed. Panera Bread restaurants put calorie counts on menus and last month, McDonald’s restaurants began printing calorie counts on all its menus.
Dr. Brownell noted that the beverage companies were under fire at the local level. Many cities, including Chicago, are considering taxing sodas, while others like Seattle and Philadelphia have instituted strong public education programs to make people aware of how many of the calories they consume come from sodas and sugary drinks.
One 12-ounce regular soda contains eight teaspoons of sugar, or 130 calories and zero nutrition, according to the American Heart Association. Mayor Michael Bloomberg has become the industry’s Public Enemy No. 1 with his institution of a ban on the sale of sugary drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces in New York City. The ban is to take effect in March 2013. Beverage companies have argued that such measures were discriminatory and ineffective because the obesity rate has risen despite declines in the sales of sugary sodas.
Under the new program, big stickers saying, Calories Count — Check Before You Choose, will be applied to vending machines in city offices in Chicago and San Antonio, and calorie count labels will be inserted next to prices.
“This allows us to learn operationally how it works and ramp it up more quickly, but our intent is to take it nationwide,” said Susan K. Neely, chief executive of the American Beverage Association.
Coca-Cola and PepsiCo own about 35 percent of soda vending machines; the rest are owned by food service and vending machine companies.
In Chicago, the beverage companies are working with Canteen Vending Services, which controls the machines in the city’s buildings. In San Antonio, the machines are owned by Coca-Cola Refreshments.
Sugared drinks had been removed from those machines under a program in 2010 started by Sheryl Sculley, San Antonio’s city manager, so Coke will only have to add labels to them.