The NHS’s public health boss is urging local councils and shopping centres to ban visits from Coca-Cola’s promotional Christmas trucks because of sugar’s key role in rotting children’s teeth and making them fat.
Duncan Selbie, the chief executive of Public Health England, has criticised the soft drink giant’s annual PR stunt, in which 14-tonne lorries decorated with fairy lights and fake snow visit towns, cities and landmarks around the UK to advertise its products.
Selbie’s comments come as PHE research found that most of the places the trucks plan to visit before Christmas have above-average rates of children with tooth decay or obesity.
“Big name brands touring the country at Christmas to advertise their most sugary products to children and boost sales does nothing to help families make healthy choices and wider efforts to combat childhood obesity and rotten teeth,” Selbie told the Guardian.
“Local authorities celebrating sugary drinks in this way need to reflect on whether it’s in the best interests of the health of local children and families.”
Coca-Cola is sending two articulated lorries to 42 locations in England and Scotland in the run-up to Christmas, including Wembley in north London, the O2 complex in the capital’s Docklands and the Lakeside shopping centre in Thurrock, Essex.
The firm’s promotional material says the trucks will be “delivering Christmas cheer up and down the country. At every stop you’ll have the chance to project your festive selfies across the side of the truck as it lights up.
“You’ll also be able to experience a snowy winter wonderland setting while enjoying a choice of Coca-Cola Classic, Diet Coke or Coca Cola Zero Sugar.”
Staff will offer consumers, many of them children, free 150ml samples of the three drinks at a truck lit by 372 bulbs and 8,772 fairy lights.
But PHE believes that Coke’s marketing risks worsening already high rates of tooth decay and obesity. On Thursday one of the trucks is due to visit Bolton, where 40.5% of five-year-olds have tooth decay – the highest number of all the areas on the list.
Overall, 61% of the stops are in places where both five- and 12-year-olds have higher rates of rotten teeth than the English average, NHS dental statistics reveal.
The same proportion of places have an unusually high number of 10- and 11-year-olds who are overweight or obese, while 56% have above-average numbers of children aged three and four in reception class who are dangerously overweight.
Councils and health officials in areas already visitedby the trucks have protested against the marketing stunt, and some have called for an outright ban on the trucks.
The tour began on 11 November in Glasgow, where Linda de Caestecker, the director of public health at NHS Greater Glasgow and Clyde, was among 44 people urging Coke to only give away water and sugar-free versions of its products. In a letter, they called on the company to be more responsible in how it markets its products and highlighted the large numbers of young children in the city who were overweight, obese or have tooth decay.
“The bright lights of the Coca-Cola truck and giving out free fizzy drinks will of course appeal to children. But when we’re in the midst of an obesity epidemic – and have increasing numbers of children with tooth decay – it’s not really doing children any favours,” said Prof Mary Fewtrell, nutrition lead at the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health.
“We’re seeing increasing numbers of local protests against the truck, both from the public and council leaders, public health professionals and dentists. The motivation behind these is not to take the joy out of Christmas; but to recognise that linking fizzy drinks with the fun of the festive season is a marketing tactic and not good for child health,” she added.
Coca-Cola defended its use of the promotional Christmas trucks, which it says have made 397 stops and covered 730,000 miles in the UK.
“The Coca-Cola Christmas truck tour is a one-off, annual event where we offer people a choice of 150ml samples of Coca-Cola Classic, Coca-Cola Zero Sugar or Diet Coke, so two of the three options are no sugar drinks. This is also reflected in the take-up of samples on the truck tour, with on average over 70% of what we sample being a zero-sugar option,” a spokesperson for the company said.
“We also have a policy of not providing drinks to children under the age of 12, unless their parent or guardian is present and says they can have one. The truck tour route changes every year as we try to cover a fair geographical spread of the UK.”