AS NEW YORK bans giant servings amid growing pressure to confront obesity, Footprint asks if the UK's soft drinks face hard regulation.
Last month Coca-Cola unveiled a new advert, but it’s not just any advert. Instead of relating its drinks to happiness the two-minute commercial responds to an issue which the soft drinks industry is under growing pressure to confront. “Today, we’d like people to come together on something that concerns all
of us: obesity,” the dulcet-toned narrator suggests. The company says the advert is intended to address the confusion about the number of calories in soft drinks. Critics believe the move is an attempt to show it is serious about self-regulation.
“In a veiled mea culpa, Coca-Cola finally acknowledges the need to reverse their tendency toward supersized portions, obscure label information and predatory marketing to children,” Dr Harold Goldstein, executive director at the California Centre for Public Health Advocacy, wrote in the Huffington Post. “Unfortunately, their initial steps and recommendations focused largely on physical activity are as flat as a lukewarm soda left on the counter all afternoon. In fact, in light of increased public support for regulations on their marketing practices, Coke’s meagre changes seem cherry-picked to provide more political cover than health impact.”
With about a third of US children and more than one in three adults overweight or obese, support for regulating food and drink companies has been bubbling along for some time, but New York’s imminent ban could change everything.
In March, sales of fizzy drinks and other sugary beverages larger than 16oz (0.5l) will be banned, except in supermarkets and convenience stores. Those that violate the law, including restaurants, face a $200 (£126) fine. The ban – which was passed in September last year but in January was still being challenged in the courts – is the latest initiative in Michael Bloomberg’s years-long quest to use the city’s regulatory power to improve public health. During his tenure as mayor, New York has outlawed smoking in bars and restaurants, required chain restaurants to post calorie counts and barred the use of trans fats in food preparation. Sound familiar?
The UK has long had a smoking ban in public places, while the Public Health Responsibility Deal includes commitments on out-of-home calorie labelling and the removal of artificial trans fats. So is a New York-style ban on supersized soft drinks coming to a UK city near you?
With the responsibility deal just coming up to its second birthday – and more companies having signed pledges – the chances are slim. However, while that deal and the Change4Life programme will “hold sway”, such voluntary actions are just the start of the process, as Martin Caraher, professor of food health and health policy at City University London, explains. “I would argue that the responsibility deal can only get us so far.”
Caraher says that the food industry is already having problems with the responsibility deal given that firms are often working on different areas and towards different goals. Companies will start to send in their annual reports to the Department of Health in March, but a spokesman suggests that a formal review is not necessarily on the cards.
Many of the big players in catering have backed the deal – 64% of the sector is signed up to the salt reduction targets, for example. Meanwhile, the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) says its members have “led the way” in committing themselves to the deal, noting that 61% of soft drinks now contain no added sugar. Coca-Cola takes a similar line in its ad: “Across our portfolio of 650 beverages we now offer 180 low- or no-cal versions.”
The BSDA media director, Richard Laming, also points out that drinks without added sugar now make up around 60% of the market, up from 30% 20 years ago – “but the rate of obesity is going up”.
There is also an argument that consumers don’t want to be told what they can and can’t buy: one survey by the New York Times found that 60% of respondents objected to the ban. Laming says a ban in the UK would be “a total waste of time” as people will simply move to other products. “We have to enable people to make the right choices.”
Others in the industry argue that there is only so much companies can do to encourage healthy consumption, though. In the “Beyond Business As Usual” report published by the Food Ethics Council (FEC) in January, one retail-sector representative remarked: “I can play around with the nutritional content of a doughnut as much as I want, I can say ‘eat just one doughnut’, I can make them smaller ... but I can’t stop someone eating three.”
So where does the UK go from here? The Coca-Cola ad will arrive on these shores very soon – if it hasn’t already – but will the bans follow? Caraher believes that Mayor Bloomberg’s counterparts in the likes of Glasgow and Liverpool will be watching what happens over the pond with interest; while some might see the initiative as draconian, pressure will build in the UK if companies are not considered to be moving fast enough. Support is gathering for a tax on sugary drinks that will raise £1bn for a Children’s Future Fund to help pay for school meals and provide more fruit and vegetable snacks for children (see below). As Dan Crossley, executive director at the FEC, notes: “If companies like Coke think they can just put out an ad like this and it’s job done, they are mistaken.”