Europe’s soft drinks industry has announced it will stop selling sugary beverages in all schools in the European Union from late 2018. Health campaigners have welcomed the move but said more needs to be done to promote healthy eating in schools.
The decision by soft drinks industry body UNESDA extends its 2006 policy of ending all soft drinks sales in primary schools and all advertising to children aged under 12 and is part of a broader strategy that includes a goal of cutting sugar content in soft drinks by a further 10% by 2020.
UNESDA President Stanislas de Gramont said the decision “will ensure our industry is not providing drinks containing added sugars to young people during the school day”.
Consumer organisations have said they are encouraged by the decision. “Sugary drinks have no place in a healthy school environment,” Emma Calvert, food policy officer at the European consumer organisation BEUC told EURACTIV.com.
“With one in three children either overweight or obese in Europe, it is high time children’s food and drinks became healthier,” she added.
“And tooth decay remains one of the most common health issues in Belgium, affecting about 50 % of children,” said Floriana Cimmarusti, the secretary-general of SAFE Food Advocacy Europe. “These numbers show that the industry’s efforts to stop marketing towards young children are not effective.”
UNESDA members, which account for 80% of EU soft drink sales, already reduced the average sugar content of their products by 12% between 2000 and 2015.
Tackling Europe’s obesity epidemic
Childhood obesity is one of the most important public health issues of this century, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO). And most overweight children go on to become overweight or obese adults, increasing their risk of non-communicable diseases including heart disease, diabetes and certain cancers.
Consumption of energy-rich foods, sedentary lifestyles and poor sleep patterns are major causes of overweight and obesity in children. In its 2017 Obesity Report, the WHO pointed to sugary drinks as a major part of the problem: “Intake of free sugars, especially through sugar-sweetened beverages, is of particular concern in relation to overweight and obesity as it contributes to increased overall energy intake.”
Representatives from the industry appear to be taking the message on board. “Children and adolescents are a special audience that needs particular attention and we are fully aware of our industry’s role in enabling young consumers to make healthy choices,” said Cesar Melo, a senior vice-president of PepsiCo, a UNESDA member.
But to tackle the causes of the epidemic, Calvert said, the industry should also “commit to stop selling sweet low-calorie or no-calorie drinks in a school setting so that children’s tastes can become accustomed to beverages which are not sweetened”. She added that more space in school vending machines ought to be given to fruits and whole grains.
The limits of self-regulation
UNESDA said its voluntary decision to stop advertising to young children had already led to a reduction in soft drink sales in secondary schools, from 54% of the total in 2006 to 38% in 2015. But the BEUC urged EU governments to go further by setting and enforcing binding rules.
“Because children should eat a diet that helps them become healthy adults, schools should promote nutritious food,” Calvert said.
“Numerous studies show that self-regulation often fails to achieve results and positive impacts,” said Cimmarusti. “Indeed, compulsory measures to restrict advertising during peak viewing hours of children will have a positive impact. Product placement should also be restricted when the content is directed to minors.”