The Washington trade association for the $34B candy industry has tapped a PR veteran of the soda industry -- and its obesity fight -- to serve as president.

larry downs jrCoca-Cola communications and public affairs exec John Downs Jr. Downs will take the reins this summer of the National Confectioners Association from Lawrence Graham, who is retiring after 22 years.

Over the past year, candy makers like Hershey, Nestle and Mars have tried to get in front of the public and political obesity fight centered on sugary beverages like soda by distancing candy from negative health effects. On the PA front, the NCA has worked to fend off calls for candy taxes, battled the sugar industry over subsidies and the high price of sugar, and lobbied against nutrition labels indicating added sugar. 

Downs held several senior roles in and around Coca-Cola since 1986, including senior VP of PA and communications for bottling giant Coca-Cola Enterprises, and, more recently, advisor for strategic stakeholder engagement, government relations and PA for The Coca-Cola Company in North America and Latin America.

He started out in Maryland politics before moving to the Glass Packaging Institute and American Beverage Association in Washington.

Downs, a member of the Arthur W. Page Society, takes the NCA reins this summer, overseeing its 25-staffer DC office, the organization's strategic direction, and the overall voice of manufacturers of chocolate, candy, gum, cocoa and other sweets.

Susan Smith, a 24-year veteran of the NCA, is senior VP of communications and outreach.