What is Saletan talking about with mini-Coke?

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Apparently Coke is introducing a new 7.5 oz Coke "mini-can" and William Saletan thinks it's a bad idea or dishonest, or something:
These messages sound a lot like what tobacco companies said when they introduced light cigarettes. According to a 2001 U.S. government report, internal documents obtained from tobacco companies
reveal the industry's efforts to produce cigarettes that could be marketed as acceptable to health-conscious consumers. Ultimately, these low-tar/low-nicotine cigarettes were part of the industry's plan to maintain and expand its consumer base. ... [T]obacco companies set out to develop cigarette designs that markedly lowered the tar and nicotine yield results as measured by the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) testing method. Yet, these cigarettes can be manipulated by the smoker to increase the intake of tar and nicotine. The use of these "decreased risk" cigarettes [has] not significantly decreased the disease risk. In fact, the use of these cigarettes may be partly responsible for the increase in lung cancer for longterm smokers who have switched to the low-tar/low-nicotine brands. Finally, switching to these cigarettes may provide smokers with a false sense of reduced risk, when the actual amount of tar and nicotine consumed may be the same as, or more than, the previously used higher yield brand.

Coca-Cola's promotional video for its mini cans delivers a similar pitch. It features Jan Tilley, a "registered dietitian" and consultant to beverage companies. "The new 90-calorie mini-can is a great way for people to enjoy the taste of Coca-Cola that they love, while still managing their calorie intake," says Tilley, smiling all the way:

The size of the packaging really reinforces moderation. ... Part of maintaining a healthy lifestyle is not feeling deprived. ... The new 90-calorie mini-can is a great way for people who like Coca-Cola to enjoy the taste with built-in portion control. A treat or a favorite food or beverage is a wonderful way to ensure that you're going to be able to practice a healthy lifestyle for life.

...

So you'll drink Coke mini for the same reason you already drink Coke: to sate your addiction. And if you don't get enough "sparkle" from the smaller can, no problem. The mini containers "will be sold in eight-packs," says the company. Just open a second 7.5-ounce can, and you'll get 20 percent more sparkle than you used to get from a 12-ounce hit.

You'll also get 20 percent more calories. According to the company's nutrition information page, an 8-ounce serving of Coca-Cola classic has 97 calories. That's roughly 145 calories in each 12-ounce can. At 90 calories per shot, the 7.5-ounce Coke mini can keeps pace with the original calorie rate, and the second mini can brings you to a sparkling 180 calories. But you'll feel better about yourself, because now you're practicing "portion control" and "a healthy lifestyle." Just like you felt better about smoking light cigarettes.

Saletan, of course, doesn't offer any actual argument, just snark, but the underlying argument you're supposed to infer presumably goes goes something like this:

  1. Cigarettes are bad for you.
  2. The tobacco companies introduced light cigarettes and suggested they were healthier.
  3. Tobacco companies are really not very nice.
  4. Coke isn't good for you.
  5. Coke is introducing a smaller portion size and suggesting that it's healthier.
  6. Coke is really bad just like the tobacco companies.

Of course, this form of argument is clearly bogus ("you know who else was a vegetarian? Hitler" [note: apparently this is a myth.]), and there are some pretty clear dissimilarities between Coke and cigarettes. First, Coke really isn't anywhere near as bad for you as cigarettes. Then there's the small problem being that light cigarettes were basically a huge scam, for two reasons: (1) the tar/nicotine measurements taken by the test machines didn't accurately reflect what happens when people smoked them (2) there was reason to worry that people would compensate by smoking more cigarettes or inhaling more deeply.

The first of these issues doesn't exist with mini Cokes: they're just Coke in smaller containers, so you're left with the compensation issue. Saletan implies that people will just drink a second coke (15 oz total) and thus be left worse off than before, but that's not at all obvious: there's extensive data suggesting that how much people consume is strongly influenced by the size of the portions in front of them and it's not all crazy to think that if you had a bunch of smaller Coke cans you would drink less Coke overall. It's true that because Coke contains caffeine, that's a potential confounding factor to the portion control effects we see with ordinary food, but most people really aren't that addicted to caffeine (and respond to it in quite small doses) so it's not at all clear that people would over-compensate. It's easy to do the math here: if you replace every 12 oz coke with a 7.5 oz coke you're getting 62.5% of the usual dose. If only half the time you drink a second mini can you come out very slightly ahead (11.25 oz). Obviously, it's an empirical question what people's real behavior is, but it seems plausible to me that they would do so infrequently enough for it to be a net win. I know that personally I tend to drink a whole bottle of whatever beverage I have, so when I buy 20 oz cokes it seems like I drink more coke than if I buy 12 oz cokes; sometimes I'll have an extra 12 ozer, but I don't think enough to compensate for all the times that I drank 20 oz just because it was in front of me.

In any case, the tobacco comparison seems at best premature: the tobacco companies knew that light cigarettes weren't any healthier; as far as I know, Coke doesn't know any such thing, and it may not even be true.

6 Comments

Regarding Hitler as a vegetarian, where did you read that it was myth. As my faulty memory recalls, Hitler suffered from some sort of intestinal problem which he believed was caused by eating meat. So he ate an all vegetarian diet high in fiber, and consequently had lots of gas.

LFS: Read all you care to and more, in the Wikipedia entry.

To the real point:

there's extensive data suggesting that how much people consume is strongly influenced by the size of the portions in front of them
Indeed. And that's exactly why soft drink companies have increased the sizes steadily, over the years. Those of us who are old enough remember when bottles when up from 7 ounces to 10 ("Pepsi Cola hits the spot / Ten full ounces, that's a lot!"). And then to 12, then 16, then 20. You can get 44-ounce cups of the stuff at 7-11 stores.

Me, I think it's good that they've gone back to 1960 portion-sizes, at least as an option. They've been producing them for institutional use for a long time, so it makes sense to sell them to the public as well.

[By the way: d'you know why the blog doesn't "remember personal info", even though I check the box every time? I'm using Firefox 3.5 on MacOS, along with the NoScript extension... and I have educatedguesswork white-listed in NoScript.]

I'm not sure I can believe the "truth about" light cigarettes page you linked to.

While I have never smoked, I lived with a Marlboro Lights smoker who would very occasionally switch to regular Marlboros if the lights were unavailable. Every time that happened, I could tell the difference the moment I opened the door to the house. The regular and light versions were absolutely nothing alike, even to a second-hand smoker. So the idea that placing fingers on filter vents turns light into regular cigarettes seems to be utter nonsense.

Also, my local supermarket has all kinds of junk food repackaged into 90-calorie or 100-calorie packs: http://www.nabiscoworld.com/100caloriepacks/ The author of the Slate article might be unaware of these too, or maybe they're being ignored because they're not part of any excise-tax plans just yet.

Hmm, 150ml (which I assume is the same size) Coca-Cola cans have existed here in the Netherlands for a very long time. They are sometimes referred to as 'fun cans' (in English). I am quite amazed this is a 'new product'.

Ralph: 150ml would be 5 ounces. The 7.5-ounce size is about 220ml.

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