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Can The Private Sector Chart A Healthier Course?

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Lauren Silverman
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KERA News

Can companies like Unilever and Pepsi help make us healthier? This week at the Aspen Ideas Festival in Colorado, corporate insiders reflect on their role in creating a healthy society.

For five years, Derek Yach pushed to make PepsiCo – the brand behind munchies like Lays and Cheetos – a producer of healthier, lower sodium, lower sugar foods and beverages. The responses were both sweet and salty.

“There are parts of a company where the support and awareness of the needs to change are very high,” Yach reflects. “But of course there were many who isolated me.”

Yach was brought on by Pepsico’s CEO, Indra Nooyi who he says saw the potential of a multinational to influence public health with different products.

“While I was there I saw the growth of hummus,” Yach says, “The launch of dairy products for the first time yogurt, and we saw a range of other healthier products being tested.”

Still, the company wasn’t willing to invest as much into research and new products as Yach had hoped. Yach is now with a health research group called The Vitality Institute, but says unlikely companies are coming together with an interest in health and prevention.

“They include companies like Samsung, Microsoft, General Electric, small startups,” he says. “They’re looking of a root to profitability through new products to promote better health, through whether its devices or smart phones or alerts or adherence. And they’re looking at how it’s going to benefit the bottom line and people’s personal health.”

Power From Behind The Counter

Rather than wait for consensus or expect the government to lead, drugstore chain CVS is trying to make healthy what’s behind its counters. In October, CVS will stop selling tobacco products all together, wiping out an estimated $2 billion a year in sales.

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Credit Lauren Silverman / KERA News
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KERA News
Derek Yach worked at Pepsi for five years. Now he's with The Vitality Institute, a research organization focused on health promotion and prevention.

Dr. Troyen Brennan, Chief Medical Officer and Executive Vice President of CVS, says it will be only a short-term loss.

“If you’re creative, you’ll be creative to the bottom line,” Brennan says. “Taking two billion out now, long-term that’s going to be a smart decision.”

He admits a lot of people were holding their breath before the announcement, expecting the stock to drop. Instead, Brennan says, it went up.

“We’re beginning to know we have to do something to take better care of ourselves. Companies that do those sorts of things, I think consumers are attracted to that and that’s the business interest.”

Across the pond, supermarket chain Tesco is also trying to nudge customers towards healthier decisions. By the end of the year Tesco will remove displays of chocolates and candies at the checkouts in grocery and convenience stores.

Many more corporations are turning inwards and focusing first on wellness among employees.

Derek Yach of the Vitality Institute says whether companies are changing products in stores or implementing health programs for workers, evaluation by a third-party will be key to understanding what works.

“The win will come through seeing whether the companies who do the right thing will see the uplift on the share price over the long term,” he says.

Lauren Silverman was the Health, Science & Technology reporter/blogger at KERA News. She was also the primary backup host for KERA’s Think and the statewide newsmagazine  Texas Standard. In 2016, Lauren was recognized as Texas Health Journalist of the Year by the Texas Medical Association. She was part of the Peabody Award-winning team that covered Ebola for NPR in 2014. She also hosted "Surviving Ebola," a special that won Best Long Documentary honors from the Public Radio News Directors Inc. (PRNDI). And she's won a number of regional awards, including an honorable mention for Edward R. Murrow award (for her project “The Broken Hip”), as well as the Texas Veterans Commission’s Excellence in Media Awards in the radio category.