Concerns over soda lead to shrinking

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Kai Ryssdal: Governor David Paterson released New York's budget this week. The Empire State's looking at a budget hole of more than $7 billion. So Paterson is looking everywhere he can for new money. That includes a tax on soft drinks. Non-diet sodas would be hit with an additional 18 percent.

Sally Herships explains that growing concerns about unhealthy effects has the soft drink industry shrinking.


SALLY HERSHIPS: If you're a cola drinker in New York or D.C., you may have noticed something new on grocery store shelves: little cans of Coke. The cans we're used to are 12 ounces. The new ones are only 7.5. From parents to governments, there's a war on soda. And the mini cans are Coke's answer.

TIM CALKINS: If you're Coke, this is a very scary moment.

Tim Calkins is a professor of marketing at Northwestern University. Calkins says it's not just New York and not just Coke. Across the country sales of carbonated drinks have slowly been sipping -- sorry, slipping -- for the past five years. People are worried about their health. So Coke is fighting back with a new, smaller can.

CALKINS: And by getting out a 90 calorie serving size. What it says is, well you know that's not so bad, that's not even like eating an apple, that's really not a big issue.

Calkins says that's what Coke wants us to think when we drink. So does a smaller can mean we'll drink more soda or less?

Tom Meyvis is a professor of consumer behavior at NYU.

TOM MEYVIS: Again, we are mindless eaters and mindless drinkers.

Meyvis says when we drink we don't think. He told me about a study done on soup drinkers. Participants were given bowls of soup. Some were normal. But some had tubes hidden underneath which secretly re-filled them. So as people ate, their bowls kept filling back up. By the end of the study, the diners with the rigged bowls ate over 70 percent more soup, but they didn't believe they had.

MEYVIS: We just keep on eating and drinking until our plate is empty, or until our cup is empty.

So putting Coke in a smaller can could get consumers to drink less. Meyvis says that when food and drinks are individually packaged, people tend to eat less. Pretend you get a bag of chocolates. You'll just mindlessly eat them.

MEYVIS: But then if I wrap the chocolates individually, then what's going to happen is you'll eat less. You eat five or six.

Instead of the whole bag. The wrappers act as an external cue. Each time you reach for a new chocolate you have to unwrap it. And unwrapping forces you to make a decision, which is what you have to do when you open a new can of Coke. But what makes you open a new can? To find out I headed to my local Target.

HERSHIPS: Is it enjoyment, is it nourishment, is it health, is it price?

SHOPPER: It's addiction.

Consumer behavior professor Tom Meyvis says while the new cans do have the potential to reduce consumption, it's not likely to happen. Even though a smaller package of Coke means a bigger price per ounce, Meyvis says if consumers do drink less soda, they may end up eating more of something else, like dessert.

In the soft-drink aisle in Brooklyn, I'm Sally Herships for Marketplace.

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