Business Costs & Regulation

Hold Soda Makers to Account for Health Woes?

A strong case can be made that it’s unethical for companies to target the very customers who shouldn’t be heavy consumers of a given product.

Question: I hear that Coca-Cola is being sued for allegedly using deceptive advertising that targets children and racial minorities and fails to acknowledge the risks of sugar consumption. The complaints are modeled on successful suits against tobacco companies. What do you think about this?

Answer:

This illustrates a dilemma I’ve sometimes noted in this column: the difference between unethical conduct and illegal conduct. A strong case can be made that it’s unethical for companies to target the very customers who shouldn’t be heavy consumers of a given product or service: children and high-sugar cereals, soft drinks and candy; college students and booze; elderly people and casino gambling.

Especially suspect, morally, are ad campaigns and special promotions that are created specifically to appeal to the target audience, such as kid-friendly ads on Saturday morning TV, beer commercials that glamorize hard partying by young adults, big-bottle discounts at inner-city convenience stores, free shuttles that bring senior citizens to casinos, and soft-drink-only vending machines in schools.

But in defense of the marketers, let’s acknowledge that all of these products are legal, and none is dangerous to your health when consumed in moderation. Sugary foods marketed to children, for example, can be a pleasant occasional treat, and after all, aren’t they usually purchased for the kids by their parents?

So the parallel between the soft-drink suits and the tobacco suits is flawed. There is no level of tobacco consumption that is safe, and the cigarette companies knew this for years before the U.S. government forced them to put warning labels on the packs and states sued them for health care costs.

Shouldn’t all of us know by now that excessive consumption of sugar contributes to the obesity and diabetes crises in America? And that a high-fat, high-calorie diet of fast food is harmful too?

Surely we should, but that doesn’t mean the government should ban or heavily tax these foods, force beverage companies to reduce the size of soft-drink bottles, or encourage lawsuits against the makers. Whatever happened to individual responsibility for one’s health?

Have a money-and-ethics question you'd like answered in this column? Write to editor in chief Knight Kiplinger at ethics@kiplinger.com.

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