Is the Coke mini can the new light cigarette?

Science, technology, and life.
Oct. 19 2009 10:15 AM

Coke Suckers

Is the Coke mini can the new light cigarette?

Coca-Cola mini by Business Wire.
A regular Coke vs. Coke mini

If soda is the new tobacco, is the Coke mini can the new light cigarette?

William Saletan William Saletan

Will Saletan writes about politics, science, technology, and other stuff for Slate. He’s the author of Bearing Right.

The can, which will debut in December, holds 7.5 ounces of liquid, less than two-thirds of a 12-ounce container. Instead of the usual "Coca-Cola" script, it's stamped with the loud promise, "90 calories per can."

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"The Coca-Cola mini can innovation reinforces the Company's support for healthy, active lifestyles," says the president of Coca-Cola North America in a press release. The president of Sparkling Beverages, Coca-Cola North America, chimes in: "Our new sleek mini can supports the idea of moderation and offers people yet another way to enjoy their favorite Coca-Cola beverage." The company's chief scientific officer adds that "this 90-calorie mini can is another way for people who love Coca-Cola to get the taste they enjoy while managing their calories."

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.

Why drink Coke at all? For the jolt, apparently. According to Tilley, "Coca-Cola's new 90-calorie mini can is a great way for calorie-conscious consumers" such as "college students looking for a quick afternoon pick-me-up" to "enjoy a Coke sparkle with fewer calories."

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 container. 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.

Public health advocates have already signaled their willingness to tax calorie-free soda on the grounds that "diet beverages may increase calorie consumption by justifying consumption of other caloric foods or by promoting a preference for sweet tastes." Compared with that endeavor, the assault on full-calorie mini cans will be a piece of cake.

(Now playing at the Human Nature blog: 1) Debating, clarifying, and rethinking  the Polanski case. 2) The beauty of artificial virginity.)

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