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The University of Liverpool Podcast Professor Simon Capewell is a public health and policy researcher at the University of Liverpool who claims that sugar, especially the sugar in sugary drinks, is the single biggest cause of obesity.

Simon appeared on the University of Liverpool Podcast to discuss the future of the sugar industry, and why it is so important of reduce the amount of sugar in UK and US diets.

6 factors influencing the future of the sugar industry

  1. Sugar intake in the UK and US are worryingly high
    Health problems are spreading across the UK and US, in large part driven by the abundance of sugar in modern diets. In the UK, one third of children aged 11 are overweight or obese, rising to two-thirds of middle-aged adults.

    The World Health Organisation recommends we consume less than five percent of our calories in sugars, but in the UK and US, children and teenagers take in an average of 15 percent.

    So while a lack of physical activity is a significant factor in expanding waistlines, Simon insists that the sugar industry is the main cause. “Most of the obesity we see in the UK and US is because the industry has been very successful at marketing excess junk food and sugary drinks,” he says.
  2. Advertising budgets are colossal
    In 2016, crisps, confectionery and sugary drinks brands spent £143m on advertising in the UK alone. In comparison, the government’s Change4Life campaign spent just £5.2m.

    “Let’s put it another way,” Simon offers: “The junk food industry spends about £28 for every £1 the UK government spends on its flagship healthy eating campaign.”

    On a wider scale, a prominent soft drinks brand has a global annual revenue of approximately US$50bn – of which between US$5bn and US$10bn is spent on marketing.
  3. Manufacturers are protecting their business interests
    A leaked document from Coca-Cola Europe revealed its own assessment of potential threats to its future profits. It organised 50 possible issues into three categories – Monitor; Prepare; and Fight Back.

    Among the items in the ‘Fight Back’ column was ‘taxation’ and ‘warning labels’. Simon reflects: “This is not a company that’s focused on the health of its consumer. This is a company focused on maximising profit for its shareholders. And it’s going to use every legal tactic to try to oppose regulation and taxation, the two things that really scare them.”
  4. Public awareness is increasing
    Junk food manufacturers are concerned that the public is becoming more aware of the health risks of consuming too much sugar in their diets, believes Simon, in the same way that awareness of the risks around smoking and drinking have increased over the past few decades. He cites the example of his own grandfather, who served during World War II at a time when 80 percent of men smoked. Today, that figure is lower than 20 percent.

    Simon believes the same tactics used to reduce the acceptability of tobacco and alcohol can have a similar effect on the popularity of sugary drinks. He insists: “The general public needs to be informed about the potential harms of sugar.”
  5. Regulators are showing a growing interest
    The growth of the internet has not only revolutionised how we spend our time and access entertainment; it has also presented new advertising channels to companies looking to promote their products.

    The UK has made tentative steps to regulate ‘traditional’ advertising, with Ofcom banning junk food and sugary drinks adverts during all television programmes aimed at children (although advertising during programmes aimed at a ‘family’ audience is still permitted). But Simon suggests that a broader approach is now needed to tackle a changing media landscape: “All the digital channels, where so much industry money is spent on marketing, they need to be nailed as well”.
  6. People are ready for change
    Since the 1980s, British attitudes towards smoking have undergone significant change – largely due to government initiatives to increase awareness of the health issues tobacco can cause.

    Simon thinks a similar effect could be delivered on sugary drinks in a much shorter timeframe, perhaps even in the next decade. The reason for his faith? The lessons learned from those past experiences, and the ability of legislators and health professionals to appropriately prepare.

    He says: “We understand very well the dirty tricks, the tactics, used by the multi-national companies to try to block regulation, to try to block taxation.”

    Armed with this knowledge, he believes, ‘people power’ may soon convince the sugar industry it is better to drive change from inside, than have it imposed from outside.

About this podcast

The University of Liverpool Podcast aims to bring listeners closer to some of the academic experts, authors and innovative thinkers from the University who, through their in-depth analyses, research and discoveries, are affecting positive change in the world today. Each episode features one or more of our academic experts discussing research in their specialist field. Subscribe to the University of Liverpool Podcast via iTunes, Tunein and Google Play Music (US and Canada only).

Interested in learning more about the University of Liverpool’s online health programmes? Find out more about our APHEA-accredited online Master of Public Health (MPH), online MPH – International Public Health, online MPH – Management of Health Systems or Postgraduate Certificate in Public Health.

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