In 2017, Coca-Cola Beverages South Africa voluntarily announced that it would stop supplying sugary beverages to primary school outlets. The company also pledged to remove all branding and advertising from schools.
The announcement took the form of a letter noting that Coca-Cola Beverages wanted to play “an active role in addressing rising obesity rates in South Africa, especially among children”.
Childhood obesity is a serious and growing problem is South Africa. More than 13% of children are either obese or overweight. The consumption of liquid sugar is particularly harmful because it is absorbed so quickly into the bloodstream. Not surprisingly, sugary drinks and their marketing has been linked to obesity especially among children. Just a single sugary beverage per day increases that child’s chance of overweight by 55%. Similarly, once they become an overweight teen, there is a 70% chance they will not be able to lose the weight.
The food environment in schools plays a significant role in increasing access to sugary drinks. Children spend a lot of time in school during their developmentally important periods. Among others, the types of food and beverages children are exposed to at school influence their eating patterns and food preferences.
This is a concern for South Africans as children are exposed to aggressive marketing and unhealthy foods and beverages at schools. Of particular concern is learners’ excessive sugary drinks consumption. An average grade 4 learner (10-year-old) has around one to two sugary drinks per day, with each soft drink containing up to nine teaspoons of sugar.
Obesity prevention efforts are clearly needed in schools. But what should these efforts entail? Our new research shows that voluntary actions by industry are not part of the recipe.
The aim of our research was to see what drinks were available at schools after Coca-Cola’s announcement. Our audit showed that the company’s brands remained available in most of the schools. Our study highlights that ceding regulation to industry is risky; government regulations and legislation are needed.