DC Influencer: Kevin Keane, American Beverage Association (extended)

Kevin Keane, SVP, public affairs and policy at the American Beverage Association, talks to Virgil Dickson about the challenges ahead.

Kevin Keane, SVP, public affairs and policy at the American Beverage Association, talks to Virgil Dickson about the challenges ahead. 

What sort of messages do you think recent initiatives send out about the industry?
The NYC proposal is a mayor telling the people of his city what they're allowed to eat and drink, building on a nanny state track record.

Baltimore's proposal is for revenue to pay for more government - using a new tax on an array of beverage containers to grab the money from consumers. What they have in common is that neither will make an ounce of difference in curbing obesity.

The message both cities are sending is that they are choosing simplistic sound bites and ineffective money grabs over bringing society together to accomplish something meaningful.

How has the American Beverage Association responded from a communications perspective?
We're responding in an aggressive and straight-forward manner. We're using traditional elements of earned and paid media, as well as robust work in social and digital media in conjunction with community outreach.

Importantly, we've been able to contrast these ineffective ideas with meaningful initiatives by our industry.

Companies have removed full-calorie soft drinks from all schools nationwide, cutting beverage calories in schools by 88 percent; provided more low- and no-calorie choices for consumers, reducing the average beverage calories per serving by 23 percent; and placed new calorie labels on the front of every can, bottle, and pack, putting information out there.

Educating elected officials and the public about these proactive initiatives has helped them understand that our companies are serious about addressing a challenging issue.

What have been the most effective outreach methods?
Painting vivid pictures of how these bad ideas won't work in as many mediums where people get their information. In New York, the mayor is restricting choice in a city that values its freedom to choose. Think about it: under his plan you can go to a Yankees game and get a hot dog with the works, nachos with all the toppings, a salty pretzel with cheese and a huge beer – but you can't have the soda in the souvenir cup. It defies common sense for New Yorkers.

In Baltimore, it's a picture of how the tax is just to pay for more government; the beginning of a new burden on consumers that will only grow, as well as a threat to local job growth. Baltimore has certainly helped bring this picture to life. When the city enacted the original tax, it included a sunset clause. Now, just two years later, the mayor moved to scrap the sunset and more than double the tax – again, to pay for the hole in her budget and more government. Also one bottling plant in Baltimore closed not long after the original tax passed.

Another effective picture is the declining slope of soda's contribution of calories and sugar to the diet for nearly 15 years now, contrasted with the rising slope of obesity during that same time. This contradiction helps illustrate the ineffectiveness of singling out certain beverages.

Have your efforts shown any success thus far?
Though there is certainly more work to do, our efforts have been successful in that both ideas are considered losers with the general public.

The NYC ban is panned and mocked in that city and across the nation. And opinion polls consistently show the public opposes soda taxes, including in Baltimore.

The public doesn't believe either will do anything for obesity. So even though these two mayors are pushing personal agendas despite public objection, the signals coming from both fronts are clear: trying these bad ideas elsewhere would be fraught with peril.

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