ATLANTA — Coca-Cola Co. will change the packaging on almost all its products to more prominently display certain nutritional facts amid increasing pressure on lawmakers to consider taxes on sugary sodas, which some health experts blame for rising obesity rates
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The effort, announced Wednesday, will place calories-per-serving and servings-per-container details on the side of almost all of the soft drink maker's products sold in more than 200 countries. Only fountain drinks, water and beverages sold in reusable bottles will be exempted from the switch.
The company said it hopes the broken-out details — displayed in black text set in a white oblong box — will be more convenient for customers who want quick nutritional information at a glance.
"Now more than ever, people expect facts about the products they consume to be both readily available and visible," Chairman and CEO Muhtar Kent said in a statement.
But some critics see the change as little more than an effort aimed at fending off a possible tax on its products, including a levy being promoted in the September edition of the New England Journal of Medicine.
"One might perceive this move as the companies trying to make an appearance of good-faith efforts to improve nutrition, where their real motive might be too fight off government regulation," said Kelly Brownell, director of Yale University's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity, who proposed the tax in the medical journal.
Taxes on soft drinks aren't new. But of the nearly three dozen states that charge sales tax on the beverages, most levies are typically small — averaging about 5 percent. On a $1 can of soda, that translates to about 5 cents.
The proposal offered by group of nutrition and economics experts in the medical journal calls for a 1-cent-per-ounce sales tax on the sometimes-caloric and sugary drinks, an amount more than double the average state tax. It would increase the levy on that 12 oz. soda can to 12 cents.
Coke, which opposes a potential soda tax, says its beefed up labeling isn't about fending off extra taxes, but is about promoting better health among its customers.
"There's no silver bullet," spokeswoman Allyson Park said. "Our company is committed to helping address obesity by encouraging active, healthy living through our products, programs and policies."
Coke said it's already changed packaging on products in Europe and Australia and is in the process of changing labels in the U.S. and Mexico.
Bottles and cans will continue to have regular nutritional labels with more detailed information on the back.
The company expects to complete the switch by the end of 2011, but sooner in the U.S. and Canada where the labels will be added by the end of 2010.
John Sicher, editor and publisher of the trade publication Beverage Digest, said other competitors could take similar steps in the future.
"I think we're going to see all the major beverage companies take more initiatives to both increase the health and wellness aspects of their portfolios and to communicate their sense of responsibility to their consumers," he said.
Coca-Cola shares climbed 35 cents to $53.62 in trading Wednesday.
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