Sugary Drinks Aren’t Cigarettes

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In the UK, Coca-Cola has brought more than 100,000 school kids to visit its manufacturing and recycling plants, and it funds an annual business competition that has touched 390,000 secondary school children.

Only not anymore. All of Coca-Cola’s programs have ended, or will shortly, in part due to mounting pressure in the UK to ban the sale of “high energy sugar drinks” to children under the age of 16. A new tax on sugar in soft drinks goes into effect next month.

“They shouldn’t be working with children,” explained a campaigner against Coke’s programs, quoted in The Times. It’s three decades since we stopped cigarette companies doing factory trips, and we are catching up with fizzy drinks.”

A can of Coke isn’t a cigarette, though, and learning about jobs and environmental responsibility are net goods for society.

Once science proved that the correlation between smoking and cancer was close enough to qualify as an avoidable cause, governments played a role in making sure people knew about it. This paved the way for a variety of other actions, from lawsuits intended to prove culpability, and insurance polices that charged more for those with the habit.

Perhaps most importantly, smoking cigarettes became less “cool” and socially acceptable, especially once public places literally pushed smoking out to the street.

Sugary drinks are a different challenge.

For starters, sugar is only one of a host of contributors to obesity and ill health and, while satisfyingly tasty, it’s not an addictive substance like nicotine. Lifestyle is a big contributor, as any gym filled with New Year’s memberships but no actual members can attest.

And so has our cultural response to its effects, which has been to promote “acceptance of body types,” and decry any judgements that might be made about someone’s weight as a racism of physical mass. That’s not to say that any of us should be held up to some anorexic standard, but do we really have to pretend that not being able to fit into an airplane seat is merely a personal choice?

It’s as it society not only decided that smoking was cool, but that dying from cancer was, too.

The battle for public health always starts and ends with habits, which are best influenced by social standards and, yes, judgments. Communities can be cruel, but until drinking prodigious amounts of fizzy sugar water is seen as stupid or unattractive, people won’t stop doing it, or getting fat. Ditto for walking around in a XXXL sized T-shirt when you once wore a L.

Ultimately, sugar and cigarettes are similar only because they’re cultural phenomena that can only be overcome by changes in perceptions.

Until then, I fear that policies to demonize sugar, or companies that make products using it, is a convenient yet ineffective way of changing, well, nothing…except making sure that society won’t benefit from good corporate citizenship.

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