Last week I attended a lecture by renowned professor of nutrition and health advocate Marion Nestle. The subject was how health advocates in the US have had some success in counteracting the “relentless marketing and political pressures” exerted by the soft drinks industry in the US, driving a decline in soda sales.
Having spent a year working in a marketing agency promoting McDonald’s to kids I know I can’t talk. But through my recent research into the terrible impact of sugar on the body I have become quite angry about the way soft drinks are marketed, particularly to kids. With a background working in the snowsports industry it’s always angered me that the energy drinks are so closely aligned with action sports. As a young 20 year old I too was taken in, downing an enormous can of Monster Energy each day before hitting the snow park. In this post on her blog Food Politics Marion talks about a pretty shocking campaign that V Energy wanted to run on Aussie university campus.
For Marion, soft drinks are low hanging fruit. They contain nearly 1 teaspoon of sugar per 30ml and no nutrients at all. Cans of Coke sold in Australia are 440ml, and so contain around 14 teaspoons of sugar.
The challenge faced by those in public health is the strength of the soft drink industry’s marketing, PR and lobbying machines. Big Soda spends millions fighting against the passing of policies that will harm business, and billions sponsoring scientific research that will show favourable results. This is clearly disagreeable behaviour. The greyer area for me is in soda brand sponsorship of health focused not for profits. Coca Cola and Mcdonald’s sponsor a number of grassroots sports for kids organisations. If they don’t pay for these, those kids don’t get free bikes or free football training.
The same is true with sports sponsorships. I moan about action sports being propped up by the energy drink industry but many of these kids rely on that sponsorship to compete, and by competing they become role models that encourage others to get into sport.
Can I imagine an “X Games Grom sponsored by Green Smoothie Co.”? I’m not sure.
An attendee also raised an interesting question following Marion’s talk: “what are we expecting teenagers will drink when they stop drinking soda?” Marion’s answer was tap water. I guess if they’re thirsty they will, but it’s often not thirst at all that drives soft drink purchase by teens. Harking back to my own youth I remember that it was almost a social occasion to meet at the garage on the way to school and buy soda and sweets. I was a strange teen and of my own accord did not drink soda so did not partake, just like I did not partake in smoking at the end of the tennis courts during lunch. This actually led me to be “left out” of the biggest social circles at school. To solve the problem of kids drinking cola we need to understand the psychology behind why they do.
Marion likens the challenge faced by reducing soft drink consumption with the challenge faced fighting the power of the tobacco industry. We’re in for quite an extensive battle!
If you want to read more from Marion, she has written a number of prize winning books including Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Nutrition and Health, What to Eat and her most recent book Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning).