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Yale report raps soft drinks giants for ‘aggressive’ child marketing

By Ben Bouckley , 02-Nov-2011
Last updated on 02-Nov-2011 at 15:20 GMT

A new report by a leading US research organisation has criticised leading soft drinks producers such as PepsiCo, Coke and Dr Pepper for aggressively marketing high sugar products to children and teens.

Jennifer Harris et al.’s new report for The Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity (part of Yale University), ‘Evaluating Sugary Drink Nutrition and Marketing to Youth’, said that US drinks giants should do more to develop child-friendly alternative products.

The authors warned: “Just one fruit drink, regular soda or energy drink contains more added sugar than most young people should consume in an entire day. Yet beverage companies continue to market these products aggressively to children and teens.”

Harris et al. noted that sugary drinks contributed 22 per cent of ‘empty’ calories consumed by US children and adolescents (Reedy, J. & Krebs-Smith, S.M), and cited Wang et al. (2008), who found that this group consumed 20 per cent more calories from soft drinks between 1999 and 2004 than in the 10 years before.

Heightened obesity risk

Such increased consumption had detrimental health effects, the researchers said: “Drinking just one 8oz sugary drink every day increases a child’s odds of becoming obese by 60 per cent.”

One 8oz serving of a typical full-calorie soda, energy or fruit drink contained 27-30g of added sugar, 160 per cent or more of the recommended amount that most children should consume in one day, they added.

And Harris et al. said aggressive marketing by leading soft drinks firms was heightening potential obesity problems within, “the first generation expected to live shorter lives than their parents due to obesity and related diseases”.

They wrote: “Even though children and teens should rarely, if ever, consume the sugary drinks and energy drinks analysed in this report, beverage companies continue to market them aggressively in virtually every medium where young people spend their time.”

Media listed by the academics included TV, radio, websites, social media, smartphones, local retailers and community events.

Drinks giants were striving to make brands appear “cool and hip” by associating them with celebreties, popular music and extreme sports, they said.

Industry rebuffs claims

In addition to assessing sugar, caffeine and sodium levels in drinks, the team examined the marketing strategies followed by soft drinks firms, with $948m (€687m) spent on advertising energy and sugary drinks annually in 2010, an increase of 5 per cent on 2008.

US advertising spending in this sector during 2010 was dominated by Coca-Cola ($300m or €217m overall) Pepsi Co ($250m or€181m) and Dr Pepper Snapple Group ($128m or €92.8m).

And taking aim at the American Beverage Association (ABA), Harris et al. wrote: “Public health experts believe the beverage industry must take stronger action to protect children and adolescents, especially from marketing that encourages them to consume products that damage their health.”

They added: “Beverage companies must change their current practices that expose children and teens to enormous amounts of highly persuasive marketing for harmful products.”

But the ABA immediately hit back: “This report is another attack by known critics in an ongoing attempt to single out one product as the cause of obesity when both common sense and accepted science have shown that the reality is far more complicated.”

Member companies were already delivering on commitments to advertise only water, juice and milk to children under 12, the ABA added; it said the Rudd report did not distinguish between advertising to children and advertising to teens and other general audiences.

“Recent research supports the fact that there has been a dramatic change in food and beverage advertising during children’s programming, with advertisements for soft drinks decreasing by 96 per cent between 2004 and 2010 alone,” the ABA said.

Report recommendations for beverage firms

  1. Developing ‘child friendly’ products with less added sugar and no artificial sweeteners
  2. Easily accessible nutrition and ingredient information, disclosure of caffeine, sugar and artificial sweetener levels.
  3. Stopping inclusion of potentially misleading nutrition-related claims on packaging without similar disclosures on less desirable ingredients.
  4. Removal of sugary (and sports) drinks from sales in elementary, middle and high schools
  5. Stopping targeting teens with marketing for sugary drinks or other caffeinated products.

The full report is available to download here .

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