BMJ editorial: ‘Apparently Coca-Cola’s voice counts more than those of directors of public health’

Coca-Cola Christmas truck should be banned, argue public health campaigners

By Rachel Arthur

- Last updated on GMT

Coca-Cola Christmas truck should be banned, say public health experts

Related tags Public health Coca-cola

An editorial published in the journal BMJ this week calls for Coca-Cola’s Christmas truck to be banned as public health campaigners seek to improve children’s health. But Coca-Cola GB has hit back, saying that its tour operates in line with its responsible marketing policy and that the focus on sugar and soft drinks alone will not address public health concerns. 

The BMJ editorial points to the sugar content of free products distributed by the truck; criticizes Coca-Cola for positioning the truck as a ‘Christmas tradition’, and also says that local media coverage fails to acknowledge the voice of public health officials.

Coca-Cola’s annual Christmas Truck Tour covered 44 stops on the 2016 tour around Great Britain, giving out Coca-Cola drinks and attracting considerable attention from local press.  

But health campaigners say that Britons can celebrate the festive season ‘without allowing Coca-Cola to hijack Christmas by bringing false gifts of bad teeth’.

Coca-Cola has defended its tour: saying that sugar free options were also given out on the tour, and that it is ‘difficult to understand’ why a ban on the truck would improve public health.

‘Coca-Cola’s marketing campaign in overdrive’

It is not the first time the Coca-Cola campaign has come under fire, with dentists among those to criticize the tour in the past.

Writing in the BMJ this week, Robin Ireland, a public health activist and director of Food Active, and John R Ashton, public health consultant, emphasize the high consumption of sugary drinks in school-age children in the UK. Free products handed out during the Coca-Cola tour include a 150ml can of standard Coca-Cola, which contains 15.9g of sugar (around four teaspoons), they add.

But the authors also attack the way Coca-Cola markets the truck tour, which has run since 2011, accusing them of attempting to turn it into a ‘Christmas tradition’.

“At Christmas, Coca-Cola’s marketing goes into overdrive as newspapers across the country regurgitate press releases for its Christmas truck tour, with advertorials promoting the truck as a Christmas tradition. And of course the truck is just the latest of Coca-Cola’s campaigns to become a holiday brand and, indeed, to help brand Santa Claus himself,” ​they write.

Unbalanced newspaper coverage

Ireland and Ashton also criticize local newspaper coverage of the Christmas truck tour for failing to acknowledge the voice of public health officials.

“This Christmas the truck visited five locations in north west England in the first week of December. The major local newspapers such as the Liverpool Echo and the Manchester Evening News provided substantial coverage over several days, including where to see the truck, live blogs, and reproducing images of the bright red truck with lights twinkling.

“Coca-Cola’s campaign was scarcely welcomed by local directors of public health, medical professionals, educationalists, or indeed members of the public. Food Active, a healthy weight campaign based in north west England, organised a letter of concern [with 108 signatories].

“But neither the letter nor the accompanying press release received any coverage in either Liverpool or Manchester. As we wrote in follow-up letters to the Liverpool Echo and the Manchester Evening News (that also went unpublished) it is of huge concern that no alternative views were provided in the face of a concerted commercial marketing campaign by Coca-Cola.

“Apparently Coca-Cola’s voice counts more than those of directors of public health.”

A 2015 report from Public Health England suggested that a successful program to reduce sugar intake would include reducing the opportunities to market and advertise high sugar products. It also suggested a soft drinks industry levy, which has since been announced by the government and is due to be implemented in April 2018.

Coca-Cola: ‘Sugar intake from soft drinks continues to decline’

Coca-Cola Great Britain points out that the beverages handed out during the tour were a small 150ml can of Coca-Cola Classic (a standard can size being 330ml) along with sugar-free Diet Coke and Coca-Cola Zero Sugar.

“We operate the tour in line with our responsible marketing policy and we do not provide drinks to under 12s unless their parent or guardian is present and happy for us to do so,” ​said a spokesperson.

“The Coca-Cola Christmas truck tour began in 2011. The data referenced by the BMJ opinion piece shows that the dental health of children in the north west has been consistently improving since 2008 and that childhood obesity is lower than at any time since 2010. 

“It is therefore difficult to understand why they think banning the Coca-Cola Christmas truck will improve public health in the region.

“As government data show, sugar intake from soft drinks by both children and teenagers continues to decline and consumption of full sugar soft drinks in general has fallen by 44% since 2004. We will continue to take actions to help people to reduce the sugar they consume from our range of drinks, but the evidence suggests the current focus on sugar and soft drinks alone will not address the problem.”

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