In this week’s PLoS Medicine series on ‘Big Food’ US experts call for health advocates to launch strong public health campaigns to educate policymakers and the public regarding the dangers of sugary beverages and to clarify the fact that industry corporate social responsibility campaigns are misleading and distract from their products’ health risks.

The authors, media and public health experts from Berkeley and Boston, evaluated famous campaigns from industry leaders PepsiCo and Coca-Cola in a Policy Forum article, which according to their opinion interprets corporate social responsibility (CSR) as elaborate, expensive, and multinational campaigns.

The authors state that even though soda companies are not looked upon as having the same social stigma or regulatory pressure as tobacco companies, the concern with regard to soda and the obesity epidemic is nevertheless increasing. The authors argue that soda companies launched comprehensive CSR initiatives in response to health concerns about their products sooner than the tobacco companies. However, their campaigns mirrored those of the tobacco industries as far as using CSR to place responsibility on the consumers instead of on the corporation, and to improve the popularity of their company and product as well as to prevent regulation, with the only difference that soda company CSR campaigns are specifically aimed at young people to increase sales.

The researchers continue:

“It is clear that the soda CSR campaigns reinforce the idea that obesity is caused by customers’ “bad” behavior, diverting attention from soda’s contribution to rising obesity rates. For example, CSR campaigns that include the construction and upgrading of parks for youth who are at risk for diet-related illnesses keep the focus on physical activity, rather than on unhealthful foods and drinks. Such tactics redirect the responsibility for health outcomes from corporations onto its consumers, and externalize the negative effects of increased obesity to the public.”

They argue: “Emerging science on the addictiveness of sugar, especially when combined with the known addictive properties of caffeine found in many sugary beverages, should further heighten awareness of the product’s public health threat similar to the understanding about the addictiveness of tobacco products,” and conclude, “Public health advocates must continue to monitor the CSR activities of soda companies, and remind the public and policymakers that, similar to Big Tobacco, soda industry CSR aims to position the companies, and their products, as socially acceptable rather than contributing to a social ill.”

Written By Petra Rattue