The Coca-Cola Christmas truck tour, which visited St Helens at Christmas, should be banned, public health experts say.
The bright red truck - which made 44 stops across the UK as part of a nationwide tour over Christmas - promotes the consumption of unhealthy sugary drinks, particularly to children, they argued.
Writing in the British Medical Journal (BMJ), Robin Ireland, director of Food Active, a campaign based in north west England to tackle rising obesity levels, and John Ashton, a public health consultant in Liverpool, said Coca-Cola was intent on shaping public opinion through its marketing techniques.
It said the company wants to “frame the debate around healthy weight” by sponsoring events, funding community sports activities and raising funds to distribute food for people in need.
Yet a single can of Coca-Cola contains seven teaspoons of sugar, according to information on the Coca-Cola website.
The experts wrote: “At Christmas, Coca-Cola’s marketing goes into overdrive as newspapers across the country regurgitate press releases for its Christmas truck tour, with advertorials promoting the truck as a Christmas tradition. And of course the truck is just the latest of Coca-Cola’s campaigns to become a holiday brand and, indeed, to help brand Santa Claus himself.
“This Christmas the truck visited five locations in north west England in the first week of December: two in Greater Manchester plus Lancaster, Liverpool, and St Helens.
“With figures showing that 33.8 per cent of 10 to 11-year-olds in the north west are overweight or obese and that 33.4% of five-years-olds have tooth decay, many public health departments have used their ever-squeezed budgets to launch campaigns about sugary drinks to try to help their communities reduce their consumption.
“So Coca-Cola’s campaign was scarcely welcomed by local directors of public health, medical professionals, educationalists, or indeed members of the public.”
Five public health directors and members of the Faculty of Public Health, among others, signed a letter saying: “We can celebrate without allowing Coca-Cola to hijack Christmas by bringing false gifts of bad teeth and weight problems to our children.”
However, the experts said their letter received no coverage in the media it was sent to.
“Apparently Coca-Cola’s voice counts more than those of directors of public health,” they said, adding cans of regular Coca-Cola had been handed out as part of the tour.
They added: “Should this form of advertising and marketing be banned, given the growing evidence of the effect that marketing of unhealthy food and drink has on children? We believe it should and will continue to push for national action from organisations such as Public Health England to stop similar campaigns next Christmas.”
A spokeswoman for Coca-Cola Great Britain said: “We had a really positive response from consumers to last year’s Christmas truck tour. As part of the experience people could enjoy a small 150ml can of Coca-Cola Classic or one of our two no-sugar options - Diet Coke or Coca-Cola Zero Sugar.
“We operate the tour in line with our responsible marketing policy and we do not provide drinks to under-12s unless their parent or guardian is present and happy for us to do so.
“The Coca-Cola Christmas truck tour began in 2011. Looking at the data referenced by the BMJ opinion piece shows that the dental health of children in the North West has been consistently improving since 2008 and that childhood obesity is lower than at any time since 2010.
“It is therefore difficult to understand why they think banning the Coca-Cola Christmas truck will improve public health in the region. The fact is, as government data show, sugar intake from soft drinks by both children and teenagers continues to decline and consumption of full-sugar soft drinks in general has fallen by 44 per cent since 2004.
“We will continue to take actions to help people to reduce the sugar they consume from our range of drinks, but the evidence suggests the current focus on sugar and soft drinks alone will not address the problem.”