Some unsolicited advice for the new Coca-Cola CEO, James Quincey
© Getty Images

The Coca-Cola Company, an American icon, is getting a new leader. James Quincey has been appointed as CEO, officially taking over for Muhtar Kent on May 1.


In the coming year, Quincey will guide the company in the face of declining revenue, changing consumer tastes, and mounting public health concerns. Quincey does not know me, but knows my work. I lead the organization that passed a successful ballot measure earlier this year to institute the nation’s highest tax on sugary drinks — two cents per ounce in Boulder, Colorado. I am an unlikely source for friendly advice, but that is exactly what I am offering with three recommended steps that can help Coca Cola’s business while also supporting public health:  

1) Stop marketing sugary drinks to kids. Coca-Cola placed 38 million ads on websites aimed at children in 2013, and one quarter of all TV ads viewed by pre-schoolers and school-aged children are for soda or energy drinks. Public health advocates like me will continue to hammer on this, and polling shows that the public is with us. A bold pronouncement from Coca-Cola on this front would build goodwill and help re-shape industry practices.

2) Don’t deny the science. There is now a mountain of evidence showing a causal relationship between sugary drinks and obesity-related chronic disease. Virtually the only studies that say otherwise are funded by your industry. Last year, after being exposed by the New York Times, Coca-Cola dismantled a front group that has questioned the link between your products and negative health impacts. This month, Coca-Cola was sued for misleading consumers about health risks. Opinion research indicates that an increasing number of people understand the true health impact of sugary drinks. The tobacco and fossil fuel industries have been down this road. Coca-Cola shouldn’t repeat their mistakes.

3) Clean up the anti-tax campaigns. Coca-Cola supports anti-tax campaigns that employ tactics that unnecessarily create opponents. In both the Bay Area and Boulder last year, anti-tax campaigns were exposed for duping local business owners into unwittingly signing up as opponents. Also, Sen. Bernie Sanders sent their trade group, the American Beverage Association, a cease and desist letter to stop using his likeness in their ads - yet they persisted. I have seen firsthand how these tactics have turned tax skeptics into supporters. Boulder’s tax initiative won because voters recognize the harm caused by sugary drinks and were handed reasons to distrust corporations like Coca-Cola by the company’s own representatives.

The data is clear. In the last 30 years, the obesity rate has more than doubled for children and quadrupled for adolescents. In the 1970’s, children drank nearly three times more milk than sugary drinks. Today, they consume these beverages in equal amounts. Every 12-ounce sugary drink they consumer per day increases their risk of obesity by 60 percent.

Americans and people around the world recognize the problem and want to do something about it. Every single sugary tax proposal put before voters in 2016 in the U.S. was successful. In October, the World Health Organization called on nations around the world to institute these taxes in the interest of public health. Countries including Mexico, Ireland, France have already done so.

By taking the steps described above, Coca-Cola can gain credibility with consumers, voters, and elected officials. The company can more effectively negotiate taxes and other public policies that affect its products. Coca-Cola is one of the world’s most valuable brands, it makes no sense to degrade that brand by waging expensive and ineffective campaigns to protect a shrinking market. Instead, the company could strengthen it with leadership in corporate responsibility. By doing so, Coca-Cola would improve public health and its bottom line.

Jake Williams is Executive Director of Healthier Colorado. Healthier Colorado was part of a campaign that successfully passed a soda tax in Boulder, Colorado.

The views expressed by contributors are their own and not the views of The Hill.