I used to work at Coca-Cola – sugary drinks should come with death warnings

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There is no better way to display the reality of someone's eating habits than by laying out their weekly binge-buffet before their very eyes.

It's a common TV trope: someone who 'can't understand why they're not losing weight' is slapped in the face by a mountain of biscuits, crisps and enough polystyrene food containers to bury a city. But what's often overlooked in these shows is the sheer volume of sugary drinks gladly chugged by a huge portion of the population.

Thankfully Cancer Research UK has now attempted to address just that – and their research suggests the average teenager in the UK now drinks an entire bathtub's worth of sugary pop every year.

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Just think about that for a moment.

When you get home this evening, go and stand in front of your bath. Now, imagine it full of Coca-Cola, and then imagine passing your 15-year-old with a straw. Your child would look at you like you were crazy, but that's the reality of what's entering their bodies – and it's doing them a whole lot of damage.

In the UK, nearly one in five children are obese by the time they reach secondary school, while another one in five are overweight. There are also tens of thousands of people under 19 with diabetes, of which obesity is the biggest risk factor.

The health of British children is deteriorating at an alarming rate, and with almost four million adults already suffering from diabetes, the NHS is being stretched to breaking point. Health experts are warning that, once our sugar-addled youngsters reach adulthood, the NHS will simply not be able to cope.

In an attempt to address the sugar tsunami washing over the nation, the Government announced a tax on sugary drinks in March. After all, drinks are the main source of added sugar in young people's diets, so we should welcome a levy of between 18-24p per litre? The more expensive something is, the fewer people can afford to buy it. It's the less affluent of us who are drinking most of these drinks and they're the same people most likely to suffer these from obesity-related diseases.

Health experts were, unsurprisingly, delighted at the announcement. The nation's sugar intake would go down, and they'd have more money available to treat people – assuming, of course, the money is redirected their way. But what's even less surprising was the soft drink industry's outrage. They immediately began lobbying government to water down the proposals, as shareholders panicked over profit margins.

During my time at Coca-Cola and other purveyors of high-sugar, high-caffeine energy drinks, actively targeted their products at shops surrounding schools

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These companies simply can't accept they are in the wrong. They don't feel they should be punished for 'offering customers a choice' – a mantra I heard over and over again during my time working for Coca-Cola. Whilst they profess to promote 'sugar-free alternatives' or give money towards sport funds (both of which are true), the reality of their working practices is far different.

At no point during my three years with Coca-Cola was I ever told to sell fewer bottles of full-sugar Coke, Fanta or Sprite – they were our 'core brands'. On our sales scorecard, full-sugar Fanta scored us far more points than Fanta Zero – they just don't see the less-unhealthy alternatives as being interchangeable.

Coca-Cola own, amongst their enormous portfolio, the 'health brand' Vitamin Water and promoted them, at one point, as being so good for you that 'flu shots are so last year'. A 500ml bottle contains 32g of sugar – 2g more than the recommended entire daily intake for a teenager.

At no point were we told not to sell them to children.

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In fact, during my time there, Coca-Cola and other purveyors of high-sugar, high-caffeine energy drinks actively targeted their products at shops surrounding schools.

Sugar triggers the pleasure receptors in our brains. It has similar addictive qualities as cocaine and heroin. It's no wonder, then, that children love these products so much. Companies have recognised them as cash cows and refuse to admit responsibility for the problems they have created.

Coca-Cola said in a statement earlier this year: "We agree with the government that obesity rates are too high, but we do not believe a tax on only some soft drinks with sugar will reduce them... By reformulating 28 of our drinks since 2005, giving consumers even clearer nutritional information on our packs and investing more in marketing our no sugar options, we have contributed to a significant reduction in sugar consumption from soft drinks over the last decade."

Jon Woods, General Manager of Coca-Cola Great Britain & Ireland, wrote in 2015: "For me, there are two key parts of the obesity debate that aren't being discussed widely enough – the importance of choice and the role of physical activity... To give you a recent example, a long-term study from Cambridge University – which followed 334,000 people across Europe for 12 years – found that physical inactivity was likely to be responsible for at least as many deaths as obesity."

While a sugar levy goes some of the way to redress the balance in favour of our children's health – a 12-year-old with £2 to spend will simply be able to buy fewer cans of pop – we have to go much further.

Governments in the UK, and further afield, have to start treating sugar in 2016 the same way they treated tobacco 20 years ago. The tax on cigarettes means 88% of the sale price of each pack now goes to the taxman. Advertising is completely banned and every pack comes with horrific warning labels. Since 1999 smoking rates have dropped from 27% of the population to 19%.

Intervention works, and it's time sugar got the same treatment.

A 2015 study found the consumption of sweetened sodas, fruit drinks, sports/energy drinks and iced teas causes 184,000 deaths worldwide every year annually.

With so many young people at risk and with the future of our health service at stake, we have to go further than the tiny levy being imposed by the Tories. Nobody needs Pepsi to live, so why not cover their bottles with pictures of diabetic amputees? Why not ban the sale of Red Bull to under 16s? Why not ban Coca-Cola sponsoring the Olympics or advertising to our children?

It may all sound draconian, but inaction is no longer an option.


Chris Hemmings is a producer at LBC Radio and former sales rep at Coca-Cola


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