Todd Harper, CEO of Cancer Council Victoria writes:

Almost 15,000 people recently took part in the annual Around the Bay ride in Melbourne.

It was my eighth time participating in the event and I am always amazed by the large numbers of people of all ages and background who participate. Bike-riding and a healthy free-wheeling childhood in Australia are intrinsically linked – which is perhaps why it is so jarring that this most innocent, and healthy, of pastimes is currently the target of corporate giant Coca-Cola.

The fact that Coca-Cola is seeking to address its sugar-soaked image problem by linking to popular activities is no surprise, but its sponsorship deal with Bicycle Network undoubtedly will not be its last effort to try and link itself to a health promoting organisation. This is all part of Coca-Cola’s public foray into obesity prevention after it announced it was getting into the ‘solution’ business earlier this year. In particular, we’ll see Coca-Cola investing in sporting initiatives to keep the focus on being physically active rather than having a healthy diet.

Overseas we’ve seen Coca-Cola move a fair way along this journey already. In the United States the corporation can be found supporting various programs including Living Positively that raises awareness of heart disease among women .  The company is also the founding sponsor of the group Exercise is Medicine whose aim is to promote physical activity to prevent chronic disease.  The group is now operating in Australia , propped up by Coca Cola here as well.  Recently the Pan American Health Organization (a regional arm of the World Health Organization), was the recipient of funds from Coca-Cola and the 2013 International Congress of Nutrition had the soft drink manufacturer as a platinum sponsor. These endeavours seek to promote the view that exercise is the key to prevention of diseases associated with overweight and obesity, taking the focus off the role of diet and in particular, sugary drinks.

Bicycle Network is not alone in being targeted by the corporation’s weight-washing drive. In Australia, we’ve already seen Coca-Cola sponsoring Little Athletics and the Victorian state sporting centres. But in the current economic climate, there will be other sporting organisations in Australia that may be vulnerable to approaches by large unhealthy food and beverage companies. However in the interests of good health, it’s vital that other organisations don’t follow suit and become cheerleaders for the sugar sweetened beverages industry when 47% of children (aged 2 to 16) consume sugar sweetened beverages daily and Australians are purchasing 1.28 billion litres of sugary drinks each year.

It’s important to remember that sugary drinks are one of the key contributors to excess sugar in children’s diets and they are associated with increased energy intake and in turn, weight gain and obesity. The recently reviewed Dietary Guidelines found that sugary drinks contribute to overweight and obesity in both children and adults. It is well established that obesity is a leading risk factor for diabetes, cardiovascular disease and some cancers, including breast and colon.

Next on Coca-Cola’s radar will be public health groups. The first salvo has already been fired with the soft drink manufacturer writing a letter to Australian GPs outlining its ‘part of the obesity solution’ initiatives, and encouraging doctors to work with the organisation in the future. The brashness of the offer highlights how confident the company is in moving into this space. The only way we can avoid a future where Coca-Cola is  being peddled to young people via reputable organisations is to highlight the negative impact of these relationships and encourage  community organisations to remain true to their mission and keep their brand out of the clutches of organisations such as Coca-Cola.

Disclosure: Todd Harper is a Bicycle Network member and featured in a video on their website promoting Around the Bay. The video has been removed at his request.

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