How Coke stole Christmas: Every year, its gaudy trucks dole out free cans to families despite Britain’s obesity crisis. But will they stop? Fat chance, writes ROBERT HARDMAN
A shivering queue is snaking its way around a car park on the outskirts of Leeds.
A yo-ho-hoing Father Christmas is lit up on the side of a lorry but there is no sign of the man himself this afternoon, despite the ‘SANTA 1’ numberplate.
A dozen freezing elves stand around handing out cans of fizzy drinks as hundreds of people queue to have their photo taken next to the truck.
Watching the excitement on so many young faces, I feel faintly Scrooge-like objecting to what is, superficially, ‘a bit of Christmas fun’. But then, so were the classic Hamlet cigar ads, and those are no longer much missed [File photo]
Because this is not any old truck — this is the Coca‑Cola Christmas truck. And to many people here, this is as much a part of Christmas as turkey and mince pies.
To health campaigners, however, it is a deeply depressing monument to the clout wielded by the junk food industry in a country where one child in three now leaves primary school classified as obese.
Indeed, thousands of British children are now so morbidly overweight that they are developing diabetes.
And what has been the response of Britain’s leading charity in this sector? Astonishingly, Diabetes UK recently announced a £500,000 ‘partnership’ with Britvic, makers of two of Coke’s biggest rivals, Pepsi and Tango.
Chief executive Chris Askew has attempted to defend the deal, saying: ‘We cannot tackle the diabetes crisis in isolation.’ The arrangement to fund the charity’s education programme, he insists, offers ‘opportunities to influence industry’.
Coca-Cola, for its part, points out that its tour is focusing on its new Coke Zero Sugar brand; that no one under 12 is handed a free drink; and that less than half of the Coca-Cola now sold in the UK is the full-fat stuff. A truck is pictured in a Christmas advert [File photo]
In which case, why not just wave the white flag now and hand round the crisps and fizz?
We are in the midst of a huge health crisis, for Heaven’s sake. The days of trying to ‘influence’ this slick, multi-billion pound industry are long past. What is needed is a tough new set of rules, not a friendly chat.
Many of those involved in the fight against child obesity have been appalled at the charity’s decision, likening it to a cancer charity jumping in to bed with Silk Cut.
‘If the charity does not hand back this money, it’s a disgrace. We’ve got to have some consistency on this issue,’ says Helen Clark, author of the All‑Party Parliamentary report on a ‘Fit and Healthy Childhood’, published last month.
Supported by politicians on all sides and with input from five universities, the lengthy document insists that the Government needs to be much tougher on the food and drink manufacturers when it comes to targeting youth. For it is abundantly clear that the industry has few problems with the existing legislation.
Takings from the Government’s new sugar tax on fizzy drinks, introduced in April, have been much lower than the £500 million expected because so many manufacturers have reduced the amount of sugar in their products [File photo]
Look at the way manufacturers use online channels such as YouTube to reach young consumers. Significantly, YouTube is not subject to regulation by Ofcom.
Yet the All-Party group has found it is now the most popular channel for youngsters of all ages. Certainly, my three — all under 12 — invariably go straight to YouTube to find something rather than fiddle around with terrestrial channels.
In addition, millions more children will watch terrestrial programmes that are not specifically ‘for children’ — like ITV’s The X Factor — than will watch, say, an episode of Thomas The Tank Engine. The junk food giants are brilliant at exploiting gaps like these.
The nationwide Coca-Cola truck tour is just another example of this cynical exploitation. If that does not count as a child-centric advertising campaign then what does? Not that the people in Leeds are making that connection when I arrive.
‘You know Christmas is coming when you see that truck,’ says Darren Brown who has three-year-old Alfie in his arms. ‘It’s part of the tradition. And I don’t even like Coke.’
In this case, it is a tradition which dates back through the mists of time to . . .well, 2010. That’s when Coca-Cola first started despatching a festive juggernaut around the country — inspired by a television ad which first ran in 1995, showing a fleet of trucks rumbling across a wintry snowscape to the jingle Holidays Are Coming.
In 2000, there were just a handful of cases involving children. The latest figures — from Diabetes UK as it happens, just last month — show more than 700 receiving hospital treatment for the condition [File photo]
People have been flocking to take selfies next to it ever since. Half a million people, mainly families with young children, turned out to see the Coca-Cola bandwagon here in 2017.
The tour ends in Birmingham and Croydon tomorrow, and this year the truck drivers (there are two trucks, one for the ‘north’ and one for the ‘south’) have had a rather easier time of it. A third of the usual stopovers have been removed from the tour following a concerted outcry from a cross-section of health organisations.
Increasingly, local authorities feel that it is simply no longer acceptable for one of the world’s most famous brands to forge an association in young minds between Father Christmas and tooth-rotting sugared fizz.
Nearly all this year’s stops have been on private land, notably the car parks of Asda and Tesco superstores.
‘The number of visits are down, but we’d be much happier if the truck wasn’t here at all next year,’ says Sonja Woodcock of the Leeds Food Partnership, which asked local retailers not to host the Coke bandwagon, pointing to the prevalence of dental problems in the area.
Coca-Cola, for its part, points out that its tour is focusing on its new Coke Zero Sugar brand; that no one under 12 is handed a free drink; and that less than half of the Coca-Cola now sold in the UK is the full-fat stuff.
Some might argue that there’s something pretty Bah Humbug-ish and petty about picking on Coca-Cola when all parts of the food and alcohol industries are inviting us to indulge in Christmas gluttony and excess of one form or another.
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Besides, if it is deemed immoral to promote a link between Christmas and fizzy drinks, then where does that leave the Easter egg? How can it be OK to foster a childhood connection between one Christian festival and fatty foods but not another?
All of which may be valid points until we look at shocking statistics such as the number of British children with Type 2 diabetes.
This chronic condition, which triggers a host of health problems and can lead to amputation and blindness, used to surface in the middle-aged after years of over-eating poor-quality food.
In 2000, there were just a handful of cases involving children. The latest figures — from Diabetes UK as it happens, just last month — show more than 700 receiving hospital treatment for the condition and nearly 7,000 being treated by GPs.
That, in turn, is a reflection of an even more alarming trend. According to the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health (RCPCH), almost a quarter of British children are overweight or obese when they start primary school.
That figure has risen to a third by the time they are 11 and go on to secondary school, where it is very much harder to exercise any influence over what they eat and drink; an eight-year-old might have to nag to be allowed a packet of crisps and a can of Coke whereas a teenager will just go and buy them.
Or take another statistic: the rise in hospital admissions for tooth extractions among children between the ages of five and nine — more than 26,000 of them last year.
The Government has announced a possible ban on selling under-18s ‘energy’ drinks — which contain vast amounts of caffeine and sugar but precious little genuine energy. A 500 ml can of the popular Monster Energy drink has the equivalent of 13 teaspoons of sugar [File photo]
Tooth decay at that age is almost wholly preventable and treatment is free. No amount of bleating about ‘austerity’ can excuse the simple fact that more children are consuming more unhealthy foods.
We already lament the fact that today’s children will be the first modern generation likely to end up poorer than their parents. What is far more lamentable is that many will die younger.
The data just keeps on coming. In October, a study involving 350,000 by the universities of Oxford and Hong Kong showed that people living within half a mile or so of clusters of fast food outlets were 11 per cent more likely to develop Type 2 diabetes.
In 2016, the Government reported that the cost of treating obesity was greater than the bill for the entire criminal justice system.
Public Health England, for example, was spending £5.1 billion a year on weight-related medical problems. It is now predicted that the total for 2018 will reach £6.1 billion.
According to food and drink industry lobbyists, it’s not all doom and gloom.
Takings from the Government’s new sugar tax on fizzy drinks, introduced in April, have been much lower than the £500 million expected because so many manufacturers have reduced the amount of sugar in their products.
But campaigners say that adapting the formula for fizzy drinks to lower sugar levels is just a sticking plaster approach. ‘Using artificial sweeteners is only a short-term measure that does nothing to shift tastes and still causes dental problems,’ says Vera Zakharov, of the Sugar Smart campaign run by the food charity, Sustain.
In the case of Coca-Cola, she argues that the Christmas truck tour is just a ‘stunt’ to bolster the main brand anyway. The new Coca-Cola Zero Sugar product looks very much like the traditional version but with a black band round the can. However, visitors who turn up on the truck tour asking for the original will be handed the classic red variety (which contains seven teaspoons in a regular 330ml can).
Here in Leeds, no one seems too bothered what they are drinking. It is just free fizz. ‘I don’t really drink it and the kids only have it as a treat,’ says Daniel Mullan, who’s here with three children aged 13, ten and five.
Asked if he feels exploited or is fearful for his children’s health, he replies: ‘You’ve got to be kidding! That’s political correctness gone bananas. We’re just here for a bit of Christmas spirit. Is that truck going to make you obese?’
And there is something particularly galling about Coca-Cola’s vast, gaily-lit circus of junk consumerism with its over-hyped message of peace, goodwill and dental cavities [File photo]
After sun-down, the lorry looks much jollier — brightly lit up while a machine puffs out occasional bursts of fake snow.
Watching the excitement on so many young faces, I feel faintly Scrooge-like objecting to what is, superficially, ‘a bit of Christmas fun’. But then, so were the classic Hamlet cigar ads, and those are no longer much missed.
Things are certainly starting to change for the better.
The Government has announced a possible ban on selling under-18s ‘energy’ drinks — which contain vast amounts of caffeine and sugar but precious little genuine energy.
A 500 ml can of the popular Monster Energy drink has the equivalent of 13 teaspoons of sugar and roughly four times as much caffeine as a shot of espresso.
Meanwhile, London’s mayor has announced a ban on all junk food advertising on the capital’s transport network.
Many of us recoil from the idea of ‘banning’ anything that is legal and a matter of personal choice. But the terrible health prospects of millions of young people mean that we have to take a much tougher line on changing attitudes.
And there is something particularly galling about Coca-Cola’s vast, gaily-lit circus of junk consumerism with its over-hyped message of peace, goodwill and dental cavities.
‘The holidays are coming,’ goes Coke’s jingle.
Perhaps, though, it’s now time for its trucks to be going — for good.
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