Are You Sure You Want to Drink That?
San Antonio joins Chicago as the first two cities to get health-conscious soda vending machines.
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Fun fact: The technical term for the triangular label on a vending machine that advertises price or other features is a “snipe.”
This is now especially appropriate for San Antonio, which is about to get a health-conscious new line of soft drink machines that will essentially snipe (or nag, or scold), You sure you want to drink that? It’s like a cupcake in a can!
As Hady Karl Mawajdeh and Wells Dunbar of KUT News reported, machines in municipal buildings will include prominent labels with the calorie information for each beverage "along with flashing messages asking consumers to think before they drink."
The program is an attempt by the [American Beverage Association] to get ahead of upcoming government regulations in the Affordable Care Act requiring calorie counts to become more visible. The idea is to make Americans pay closer attention to the calorie counts in what they consume, thereby improving heath (and lowering health care costs over time). The program comes after hamburger giant McDonald's began posting calorie counts on its menus.
New machines will also feature electronic displays reminding customers that “Calories Count.” The displays will also stream slogans like “Check then Choose,” and “Try a Low-Calorie Beverage.”
As Duane D. Stanford of Bloomberg noted, more than thirty states have proposed taxing sugary drinks (without getting very far), while New York mayor Michael Bloomberg has infamously spearheaded new regulations banning "super-size" cups.
As Stephanie Strom of the New York Times reported, the initiative is actually part of a larger "wellness challenge" between San Antonio and Chicago, for which the American Beverage Association is putting up a prize:
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.
San Antonio mayor Julián Castro was in Chicago to announce the initiative with Emanuel. The wellness challenge will run for three months, starting January 1. The vending machines, which are due to be installed in early 2013, will also have more lower-calorie and smaller-portioned purchase options—though according to Strom, San Antonio's current machines have already been devoid of fully-sugared sodas since 2010.
"Education is always a good thing..." opined NYU sociology professor and nutrition writer Marion Nestle at her "Food Politics" site. But overall, Nestle, a frequent critic of "Big Soda," wasn't that impressed, going so far as to suggest that the $5 million "looks like a bribe:"
If these companies really wanted to help reduce obesity, they might start by eliminating sugary drinks. But never mind. This is about politics, not health.
For one thing, calorie labels are going to have to go on most vending machines anyway, as soon as the FDA gets around to writing the regulations for them.
For another, this move heads off any attempt to introduce (horrors!) taxes on sodas or caps on bottle size in those two cities.
Nestle is a proponent of the New York City regulations, arguing that choice and personal responsibility simply aren't making people any thinner.
"It is also necessary to create a food environment more favorable to making healthful choices," she wrote.