Monetary gains for healthier choices send wrong message

When I moved to New York City, I was thrilled to see calorie counts on every menu. It saved me the time of having to look up the nutritional information on my phone.

When I moved to New York City, I was thrilled to see calorie counts on every menu. It saved me the time of having to look up the nutritional information on my phone.

When I first heard about the beverage industry making a stand by launching a healthy vending machine initiative to prove it's not the antagonist in the war against obesity, I was all for it. But after reading the initial rollout strategy, I started to become skeptical about its authenticity.

I support parts of the American Beverage Association's Calories Count Vending Program that include listing nutritional information and adding more low-calorie or low-sugar beverage choices.

It makes sense for the soda industry, which has been criticized a lot recently for the link between sugary drinks and obesity, to make a move showing its support of healthy habits. After all, if fewer people are drinking full-sugar beverages, the business needs to start promoting its other options.

The part of the program that seems out of place is the $5 million grant from the American Beverage Association that will go to either Chicago or San Antonio, where vending machines will initially show up in municipal buildings. Whichever city's workers show the most impressive health improvements in terms of weight loss and lower blood pressure after the vending machines are installed will win the grant.

While it seems like a good idea, it also sounds like a bribe, especially since beverage companies have been under fire at the local level with more cities contemplating adding taxes to sugary drinks.

When making the grant announcement in Chicago, Mayor Rahm Emanuel appeared with representatives from Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Dr Pepper. He also said he doesn't want to pursue soft drink size limits or approve a proposed tax on sugary beverages.

How the program is being implemented also raises concerns for me. Decreasing the consumption of high-sugar drinks may show some health improvements, but the pool of individuals involved in the wellness challenge seems too vast and uncontrollable. Starting with a smaller group may show clearer results, as would launching the initiative in a school environment where many kids rely on vending machines for beverages on a daily basis.

Overall, vending machines across the country should include more low-calorie or diet drink options. In fact, they should all start offering healthier selections, whether it is food or beverages, but the way to promote better choices for people should be more authentic than offering a monetary reward. 

Lindsay Stein is the consumer marketing reporter for PRWeek. She can be contacted at lindsay.stein@prweek.com.

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