Coke, Pepsi, and the Obesity Time Bomb

June 29, 2016 Updated: June 30, 2016

A study published in The Lancet in early April reveals a global obesity time bomb. For the first time in history, more of the Earth’s population is obese than underweight.

Chronic health problems associated with “globesity” are also skyrocketing, including diabetes, heart disease, and some cancers.

Numerous factors are implicated in this epidemic, but one potent factor stands out for its cynicism—a massive effort by the soda industry to peddle sugary soft drinks in the developing world, especially to young people.

The cause-effect relationship between obesity and heavy consumption of sugary soda is beyond dispute. The human body treats the sugar calories in beverages differently from those in foods. Because sugary drinks aren’t as filling, people tend to drink them without compensating by eating less later in the day.

Also, the sheer volume of sugar in these drinks is remarkably high. Consuming just one 12-ounce can of Coke or Pepsi—each with almost 10 teaspoons of sugar (high fructose corn syrup)—daily equals more than 30 pounds of sugar over the course of a year.

Thanks to increased public awareness of their health harm, consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is stagnant or declining in Europe and North America. The greatest decline has been here in the United States, where per-capita consumption has dropped a remarkable 25 percent since 1998.

But just like their tobacco and alcohol colleagues before them, The Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. have reacted to slower sales in wealthy countries by doubling down on marketing their least-healthy products in low- and middle-income countries. (Between them, the two companies control more than two-thirds of the $340 billion annual market in global soft drink sales.)

The scale of their ambitions is staggering. According to a recent study by CSPI, Coca-Cola alone is investing more than $40 billion this decade to expand sales in Africa, Asia, the Middle East, and Latin America.

In many cases, the companies are using marketing tactics they have honed in the developed world, focusing on youths.

As Ahmed Nazmy, head of marketing for Coca-Cola’s Egypt franchise, said last year: “We have young generations who can consume any kind of food and beverage, [they’re] not caring about their health yet.”

To help them “not care,” the industry is deploying a full arsenal of traditional marketing techniques across the developing world, from saturation advertising to culturally specific cartoon characters and mascots to ubiquitous availability.

But increasingly the real action is in the exploitation of social media and mobile technologies—what Coke refers to as “liquid and linked” global content marketing.

These sophisticated strategies employ Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Instagram, Vine, mobile apps, and social gaming. To support its vision of making mobile “an enabler of desire,” Coke is even supporting the establishment of free Wi-Fi around its kiosks in such places as rural South Africa.

In their defense, Coke and Pepsi point to public promises not to market to children. But even these pledges are riddled with loopholes. That’s why an international group of public health organizations, including the World Obesity Federation and Consumers International, is calling on the CEOs of Coke and Pepsi to exercise greater corporate social responsibility.

First, they should clearly acknowledge that heavy consumption of full-calorie soft drinks contributes to obesity and other health problems. Like tobacco and alcoholic beverages, sugary drinks should be recognized as a global health and development issue.

Beyond that, the companies should make enforceable global commitments to refrain from marketing sugar-sweetened beverages to children 16 and under; reduce container sizes; include warning notices on containers; and reduce the caloric content of these beverages to about 40 calories per serving.

It’s one thing for Coke and Pepsi to deploy state-of-the-art selling techniques on more media savvy consumers in wealthy countries. Those families, for the most part, don’t have to choose between soda and supper. And when they do contract diabetes or tooth decay, they mostly have access to medical and dental care.

In poor countries that are struggling to provide basic nutrition and rudimentary health care to their populations, the soda industry’s tactics are a moral disgrace as well as a serious threat to public health.

Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., is president of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Views expressed in this article are the opinions of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Epoch Times.