Despite pledges not to market to children, the world's largest soft drink companies are borrowing tactics from the tobacco industry and turning their sights to young people in low- and middle-income countries to make up for falling sales elsewhere, an American consumer advocacy group charges.
The claims, made in a new global soda marketing report published Tuesday by the Center for Science in the Public Interest, document how Coca-Cola and PepsiCo use cartoon characters, social media messages and product placement on television shows to market their products to children and adolescents in a number of countries, notably Brazil, China, India and Mexico.
"The sweetening of the globe's diet is really accelerating," Barry Popkin, distinguished professor of nutrition at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, said during a conference call Tuesday.
In Canada, per capita consumption of carbonated soft drinks declined 14 per cent, or from 122 litres to 105 litres annually, from 1999 to 2009, according to a 2015 report from Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada. The CSPI report says that U.S. consumption has dropped 25 per cent from 1998 to 2014.
In other countries, the pace is picking up. Latin America is now the leading consumer of sugar-sweetened beverages in terms of dollar sales, the report found. In Mexico, where officials are struggling to contain the obesity crisis, the average person consumed nearly 135 litres in 2013. The companies have also invested billions in new bottling plants and distribution networks in those countries, the report says.
The report notes that in India, PepsiCo and MTV recently entered a three-year sponsorship agreement. A screen shot from a 2015 episode of the TV show Vietnam Idol shows judges with cans of Pepsi in front of them. Coca-Cola uses two childlike clay doll characters in China to market its products around Chinese New Year, similar to how the company's branded polar bears have become synonymous at Christmas. Both companies maintain branded social media sites in various countries that often feature interactive games that young people would find attractive, the CSPI report found.
Although soft-drink makers have pledged not to market to young people, the CSPI report notes that there are loopholes in those promises that make them easy to break. They are calling for more regulation to enforce a marketing ban on sugary drinks to young people.
While obesity, diabetes and other chronic illnesses are complex, sugar-sweetened beverages are increasingly being targeted because they pack a significant number of calories and sugar and contain few, if any, nutrients. Mounting research suggests that consuming sugar, even in moderate amounts, increases the risk of cardiovascular disease and other serious health problems, even among people who have a normal BMI.
Efforts are under way to curb these problems. On Tuesday, the Dietitians of Canada, a national organization, called for the introduction of a 20 per cent soda tax to combat obesity. The federal government has pledged to revamp nutrition labels to make it easier for consumers to see how much added sugar products contain.
Mexico, one of the world's biggest consumers of sugar-sweetened beverages, introduced a steep soda tax and after one year, sales declined 12 per cent.