Sandhya Pillay: Soft-drink ban is not the answer

I believe Kiwis have the right to decide what the best drink choice is for them and their families. Photo / Supplied
I believe Kiwis have the right to decide what the best drink choice is for them and their families. Photo / Supplied

Sandhya Pillay is the Country Manager for Coca-Cola Oceania.

Next week I will find myself in the unique position of representing Coca-Cola New Zealand at an event that has the stated goal of ensuring New Zealand is free of sugar-sweetened drinks by 2025.

As a leader in the food and beverage industry, Coca-Cola has a role to play in helping decrease obesity, but we cannot provide the answer and we definitely cannot solve this issue alone.

What might surprise you is that while Kiwis are already consuming fewer sugar-sweetened drinks each year, obesity rates in New Zealand are still climbing.

One of the reasons for this might be that sugar-sweetened drinks contribute 1.5 per cent of the total energy in an average New Zealand adult's diet. Therefore, focusing on any particular food or drink that accounts for less than 2 per cent of the energy we consume in our entire diet is not in itself a solution.

Kiwis are also already choosing alternative drink options such as smaller-portion packs and lower-energy drinks. Over the last 10 years, sales of low or no-sugar drinks have increased by a staggering 66.7 per cent.

Sales of bottled water have also grown by at least 25 per cent in each of the last two years. How does this growth, along with reduction in consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks, correlate to the expanding waistlines organisers of the FIZZ Forum are rightly concerned about?

The health industry is narrowing its focus to a ban on soft drinks when we need to have a broader view to affect change.

In New Zealand, we demand choice and variety in every facet of modern life, from clothes, to food, to cars. Taking this and other consumer trends into account, Coca-Cola provides a wide range of drinks to suit different tastes, lifestyles and occasions.

I believe Kiwis have the right to decide what the best drink choice is for them and their families. We are always transparent about both the energy content and ingredients in our drinks in order to help people make the right choices for them.

Demonising one food or drink, through bans or additional discriminatory taxes, is unlikely to lead to any long-term change in our nation's obesity issue.

Addressing the energy imbalance that has contributed to obesity requires effort across many different areas and sectors. Demonising one food or drink, through bans or additional discriminatory taxes, is unlikely to lead to any long-term change in our nation's obesity issue.

I've had conversations with New Zealand academics, scientists, dieticians, nutritionists and other healthcare professionals, and while we generally agree that there is no silver bullet, one clear opportunity exists, lifting food literacy. This helps people make more informed and conscious decisions about what they eat and drink.

We know that consumption of excess calories, no matter the food or beverage source, is not good for the health of individuals or New Zealand. Already in the past few years the beverages industry has undergone considerable transformation in New Zealand and around the world.

We're taking more practical steps to help people enjoy our drinks while balancing their intake of energy by offering smaller pack sizes and more low-calorie and no-sugar drink options.

Through innovation in product reformulation, our business has been reducing our sugar use in some of our most well-known brands, such as our Keri juice drink which has 30 per cent less sugar and calories compared with our previous formulation and our recently launched Coca-Cola Life which has 35 per cent less sugar and calories than Coca-Cola Classic by using the natural sweetener stevia.

Making energy or calorie information more clearly available on the majority of our vending machines is just one of the ways we are improving our nutrition communication. We've also voluntarily adopted the Ministry of Primary Industries' Healthy Star Rating System - the energy icon.

At Coca-Cola New Zealand we will continue to step up our efforts, believing that the best approach to help reduce obesity is to give people choice and information, rather than product bans, increased taxes on families and individuals or through more regulation.

We need to become more open about looking at other constructive options to address obesity. I ask the health industry to work more closely with the food and beverage industry and collaborate where we can have the most effect.

Where this journey will take us to next is of great debate. However Coca-Cola and the beverage industry is making a positive and concerted effort to be part of the solution.

We can tackle this issue as a nation but we have to do it together.

No one solution will work, and nor will targeting one sector. Robust yet balanced discussion needs to be had to agree on what we can collectively and individually do to reverse the obesity trend long-term. To get there we need to put the people of New Zealand first and find the most impactful ways to make a sustainable difference.

- NZ Herald

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