Why are consumers willing to overlook the contribution that Coca-Cola’s products are having in driving Australia’s poor health?  And why do organisations with public health objectives buy into the message that it is somehow part of the health solution when it comes to addressing obesity?

Croakey has run a number of articles on the issue in recent times, including this warning to “stop peddling Coke” from Cancer Council CEO Todd Harper and a message to Bicycle Network Victoria: “you can’t have your Coke and eat it too” .

In the post below Dr Melissa Stoneham and Dr Jelena Maticevic from the Public Health Advocacy Institute of Western Australia (PHAIWA) describe their concerns and efforts to take on the issue when local councils signed up to the Coke-backed “Happiness Cycle”.

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Dr Melissa Stoneham and Dr Jelena Maticevic write:

Over the past few years Coca-Cola has been cleverly positioning itself as being ‘part of the solution’ rather than a cause of the obesity epidemic. As Coca-Cola’s position statement on obesity states, no one product by Coca Cola has been shown to cause obesity. So why then, if Coke is not the problem, is it so interested in promoting active lifestyles?

Given its international presence over many decades, Coke’s marketing holds more sway in the public eye than any peer-reviewed published scientific evidence ever can.  So despite the Australian Dietary Guidelines citing energy-dense nutrient poor drinks as contributing to obesity in Australia, with the most recent Australian nutrition survey finding that around 25 per cent of Australian children aged 5-17 year olds are overweight or obese, and 51 per cent of males and 38 per cent of females in the 10-14 year age bracket consume soft drinks on a daily basis, we continue to hear the mantra that Coke is part of the solution.

Both developed and developing countries have increasing rates of non-communicable diseases, and as reflected in the most recent findings of the Global Burden of Disease study, Coca-Cola has been capitalising on this as an avenue to promote its brand as being part of the obesity epidemic solution – when in fact all public health practitioners (and many others) know it is part of the problem!  By emphasising the role that energy imbalance plays in obesity, they have shifted the emphasis from their sugar-laden soft drinks to overall energy consumption and expenditure, and made the smooth transition into physical activity.

Coke has cleverly aligned itself with a range of physically active images and programs, including The Happiness Cycle, the facilitation of fitness classes in local parks and, our favourite, sponsoring the Fifth International Congress on Physical Activity and Public Health held in Rio de Janeiro in April this year. So is Coke being a good corporate citizen or just utilising different marketing tactics to generate more brand loyalty? Clearly this is a no brainer!

Why are consumers willing to overlook the contribution that Coca-Cola’s products are having in driving Australia’s poor health?  Let’s look at one specific example, that the Public Health Advocacy Institute of Western Australia (PHAIWA), based at Curtin University was involved in last month.

The launch of “The Happiness Cycle” earlier this year targeted young people aged 15-16 years old by providing them with a bicycle to encourage physical activity through cycling. In partnership with the Bicycle Network, events were held at participating local governments around Australia, with up to 300 young people attending each event, receiving a bike and learning bike maintenance. In WA, we had 3 Councils join the program. PHAIWA was concerned about this and in coalition with 9 like-minded public health organisations, sent letters to Coca-Cola, the Bicycle Network and the Mayors of the 3 participating local governments. The responses PHAIWA received are a reflection of Coca-Cola’s success in slowly positioning itself as providing a positive societal change, making it harder to argue against the dangers that its products pose to the children in our community.

So as to avoid identifying any specific organisation, we have provided just a couple of examples of the rationale included in these letters:

“We are worried that we might take a backwards step if instead of focusing our efforts on physical inactivity, we now concentrated on diet.”

“We are satisfied that the event served its intended purpose of promoting the benefits of physical activity and that it was not used as a forum to promote Coca-Cola.”

The Bicycle Network defended its decision to team up with Coca-Cola, citing funding opportunities and shared values as an avenue to promote physical activity in teenagers as their reasons in taking part. Whilst their response clearly outlines the risks related to not taking action against physical inactivity, it fails to highlight the multifactorial causes of resulting medical problems, of which obesity related to poor diet is one.  The responses from local governments taking part in the scheme focused on the benefits of physical activity, and that the lack of branding, availability or promotion of Coca-Cola in physical activity had been taken into consideration. This may have been the case, but hasn’t been carried through in the program’s Coca-Cola branded website.

This is the marketing power that Coca-Cola holds over us. By branding itself as a healthy company committed to the obesity epidemic, it glosses over the very products it promotes.

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