Last week, Food Active, based in Liverpool and funded by the North West Directors of Public Health, launched a campaign encouraging people to Give Up Loving Pop—or GULP. To gulp something implies urgency and hunger, and it’s certainly true that UK consumers possess an insatiable desire for the fizzy stuff, each putting away an average of 103 litres of carbonated drink per year.
Robin Ireland, chief executive of the Health Equalities Group and director of the GULP campaign, emphasises that the focus is on educating consumers: “Few people fully realise the harm that sugary drinks can do to your health… Given the levels of overweight and obesity across the UK, in particular among youngsters, unless we start to take action on sugary drinks we will be storing up problems for future generations.” Worrying figures published by the government show that, in the 4 to 18 years age group, soft drinks alone are the largest single source of sugar, with 40% of young people reportedly drinking three or more glasses a day.
Fizzy drinks should prove a relatively easy target, as evidence for their detrimental impact on health is increasingly well established. Indeed, the GULP campaign itself references a number of key studies as it seeks to educate consumers about, for example, the increased risk of type 2 diabetes and the metabolic syndrome associated with consumption of one or more soft drinks a day. They also point out an increased risk of gout in males and females, with a single can a day. And these are just their headline facts, the pages of their website provide much more in depth information about the associated risks including obesity, tooth decay, and cardiovascular disease.
One suggestion to break the sugary drink habit is to tax the product. GULP points to research suggesting that a 10% rise in the price of sugary drinks would lead to a decline in 7-8% of the quantity consumed. Supporters of a sugary drinks tax are plenty, and include prominent organisations such as the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges, British Dietetic Association, and Faculty of Public Health. Nevertheless, implementing such a tax is unlikely to be easy as the food and drink industry remains very influential, representing the largest single manufacturing industry in the UK, with a turnover in excess of £95bn and accounting for 18.3% of manufacturing sector total.
So is there an easy solution? Could consumers substitute their full sugar product with its “diet” branded counterpart and be absolved of all guilt? On the basis of current evidence, the answer is no. A 2013 study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found a link between consumption of diet drinks and risk of the metabolic syndrome, and that the risk of developing diabetes was in fact higher for subjects drinking diet products compared with the regular sugar based products. Although some have since queried the study’s validity and methodology, it is a difficult finding to ignore, and potential reasons for this are subject to ongoing investigation. Perhaps it is related to findings of a large cross-sectional US study that found overweight individuals drank more diet soda than those of healthy weight, tending to make up the missed calories with extra calorie intake elsewhere.
Tackling the soft drinks industry is no easy task, but through education and engagement of consumers GULP hope to positively influence their decisions and ultimately their health. They are running a series of roadshows throughout the north west of England this week, and have set up a social media campaign across multiple platforms including Twitter, and Vine.
More information can be found on their website.
Emma Rourke is a foundation year 2 doctor working at Kingston Hospital.
Competing interests: None declared.