Soft drinks manufacturers do not appear to be taking the current debate on child obesity as seriously as consumers would like. While the commitments made by the beverage industry last week look, at first glance, to be a step in the right direction, more detailed investigation suggests the changes are nothing new.
The Union of European Beverages Associations (UNESDA) – the body representing nine multinational companies, including Coca-Cola, Pepsi and GlaxoSmithKline – announced what it described as “wide ranging reforms” of the way the &£26bn European non-alcoholic drinks industry markets itself to its key markets.
Yet the main pledges – which include removing company branding from school vending machines and not selling soft drinks in primary schools unless invited to do so by education authorities – appear to have been dreamed up only to stave off the threat of external regulation by the EU.
These are small concessions considering many governments, including the UK’s, are already some way towards banning junk food and drink from schools altogether. Very few primary schools in this country still accept vending machines and education secretary Ruth Kelly announced last year that from September 2006, colas and all other fizzy, sugary drinks will be removed from school canteens and vending machines.
The other main thrust of UNESDA’s “new commitment” is that its members will cease all marketing communications aimed at children aged under 12. But this is difficult to define.
An insider at one of the UK’s biggest drinks companies says: “Drinks companies will say they’ve already stopped marketing to children under 12 because they don’t have their ads in kids’ prime-time slots but, frankly, there’s a very fine line between being on the good side and being on what is viewed as the bad side of this argument. This UNESDA code has nothing new in it and I’m still trying to ascertain why they’ve dragged it up again.”
Sue Davies, chief policy adviser at consumer group Which?, says the drinks industry still has a long way to go and adds: “We will fight any move that doesn’t include children over the age of 12. All children are influenced by food advertising whether they are four or 14.”
National Heart Forum deputy chief executive Jane Landon goes a step further and calls the moves “risk management dressed up as corporate responsibility”. She says: “This industry-wide repackaging of existing commitments by individual companies adds nothing new, other than to demonstrate that the soft drinks industry is feeling under pressure to deliver something or face regulation.”
The British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA), the UK arm of UNESDA, promises a robust and independent monitoring process but was unable to confirm who would act as monitor and how such a watchdog would work.
Despite this, BSDA public affairs manager Richard Laming says the aim is to begin monitoring in April. “Part of the process will be to clarify the definitions for members of the public so breaches of the code can be spotted,” he adds.
Of the code itself, Laming says: “The European Commission wants to work with the drinks industry and we agreed and wished to show action. We are not going to offer nice words without action.” Evidence so far suggests otherwise.