1959 Coca Cola Bottle 6.5oz

Is Harm Reduction a Strategy for Coke?

In the midst of a decade of declining soda sales, could it be that Coke is pursuing a harm reduction strategy? Some subtle and even mixed signs suggest that this might be the case.

Harm reduction is a public health policy designed to reduce the harmful effects of unhealthy human behaviors. Pragmatists embrace harm reduction while purists reject it for conceding vices they deplore.

The market for carbonated soft drinks has been declining for a decade. Health concerns about sugar have hit a new high this year. Everywhere you turn, new public health campaigns are putting the blame on sugar for the growing crisis in severe obesity and diabetes.

Coke is responding with what might be characterized a harm reduction strategy. Having tried and failed to fight or ignore the health concerns about sugary drinks, diabetes, and obesity, the company is starting to address them more directly.

Coke is an active participant in the Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, playing a role in removing 6.4 trillion calories from the U.S. food supply. But most significantly the company is in the midst of an effort to reposition their flagship brand as an occasional treat, rather than something to be consumed in great volumes as a replacement for water.

As part of the repositioning, Coke has resurrected the small glass bottles that were its trademark in an earlier era. They have introduced other small size packages. Most significantly, they have renegotiated contracts with their distributors. Instead of paying them based upon gallons sold, they are moving to a model based on revenue.

This shift could have the effect of reducing the the incentive to upsize consumers as was done so vigorously through the 1970s and 19980s. Now they are systematically looking at ways to make more revenue from smaller servings, which complements a strategy to take calories out of the U.S. food supply.

The end result might be less sugar and fewer calories in the U.S. food supply. That sounds like harm reduction to us.

In their most recent sales results, Coke reported increased revenue from their regular Coke product for the first time in a while. They attributed it to more “brand love” as a result of demand for the smaller packages.

Detracting from that bright spot was the news that sugar-free Diet Coke sales in North America declined and more than offset the increase in regular Coke. The decline results from false information about the safety of artificial sweeteners.

It’s ironic that people who consider themselves health advocates may have the effect of shifting the balance of demand toward products with more, not less, sugar. And they’re doing it based on claims that lack an evidence base.

Click here and here to read more from Bloomberg.

1959 Coca Cola Bottle 6.5oz, photograph © Roadsidepictures / flickr

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