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Sugary Drinks and Tobacco—Different Industries, Same Playbook

Kelly Brownell, PhD, Director of the World Food Policy Center, Professor of Public Policy, and Former Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University and Matthew L. Myers, President of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids share insights about why sugary-drink marketing is so dangerous and what we can learn from its historical ties to the tobacco industry.

Kelly Brownell headshot

“Kids are so important to beverage companies because brand loyalty starts early and lasts a long time. And if these kids are off onto a lifetime of consuming these sugar beverages and they prefer my brand over yours or yours over mine, that’s how these companies cash in.”

—Kelly Brownell, PhD, Director of the World Food Policy Center, Professor of Public Policy, and Former Dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke University

How Are Companies Marketing Sugary Drinks?

On average, kids in the United States will see dozens of advertisements every single day, many for sugary drinks and junk food. And children are being exposed to more ads for sugary drinks than ever before, a growing concern because sugary drinks are the single largest source of calories in children’s dietsproviding nearly half of kids’ added sugar intake.

Beverage companies spend nearly twice as much on ads for sugary drinks as they do on ads for unsweetened or diet beverages and they target Black and Hispanic youth.

$1B

Beverage companies spent $1 billion in ads in 2018, disproportionately targeting Black and Hispanic youth.

2X

Black children saw 2.1 times as many sugary drink ads compared to white children in 2018.

$84M

Beverage companies spent $84 million in ads on Spanish-language TV for soda, sports drinks and energy drinks in 2018up 80% since 2010.

These ads and the billions of dollars behind them are part of a strategic marketing campaign by the food and beverage industry to get kids hooked on their products.

Their tactics come straight from the tobacco playbook–and kids of color are most frequently targeted. This is especially concerning because sugary drinks are a major contributor to obesity, diabetes, and other chronic health conditions that disproportionately impact Black and Hispanic children.

Parallels Between Beverage and Tobacco Industries’ Marketing Practices

They Spend Money to Influence Consumers

The connections between the tobacco and food industries go back decades. Until recently, many of these companies, including well-known brands such as Kool-Aid and Marlboro cigarettes, were one and the same, managed under umbrella corporations such as RJR Nabisco and Philip Morris.

Matthew Myers

“The marketing tactics beverage companies use are identical to what the tobacco industry did, which is to create an imagery for their products that makes them cool to young people. Their ads have very little to do with the product itself, because there’s very little good to be said about the product in that way.”

—Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids

And to this day, both industries continue to employ the same unfair practicestactics that may seem benevolent but, in fact, disguise strategic advertising techniques aimed at specific populations. For example: funding projects such as playgrounds in communities of color or sponsoring Black and Hispanic celebrities and sports figures.

Video transcript, from Matthew L. Myers, President, Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids: “Their marketing tactics are identical to what the tobacco industry did, which is to create an imagery for these products, to make them cool to young people, to make them part of your lifestyle, to make them part of the social attributes that every young person wants to be. It has very little to do with the product itself, because there’s very little good to be said about the product in that way.”


They Make Sure Kids Have Easy Access

In some cases, that involves the beverage industry infiltrating spaces where kids congregate—placing products and ads everywhere from schools and playgrounds to recreational fields and professional sports arenas.

Video transcript, from Kelly Brownell, PhD, Director, World Food Policy Center: “The infiltration of the schools is very concerning. The companies have said they will change the mix of products that are in the machine, so they’ll have fewer sugar beverages and more diet beverages and water and things like that. In my mind that’s almost irrelevant because the payoff for the companies in schools isn’t what the kids are buying, it’s the marketing that goes on every time somebody walks past that big red Coke machine. That’s the exposure that they’re looking for. So they can change the mix of what’s in the machine all day long and it may not make much of a difference in the kids’ overall nutrition because the kids are imprinting on a brand.” 

With infiltration, kids get ongoing, consistent exposure and easy access to a company’s products. That means increased sales for beverage companies and the cultivation of brand loyalty from an early age.

Video transcript, from Kelly Brownell, PhD, Director, World Food Policy Center: “Kids are so important to those companies because brand loyalty starts early and lasts a long time. And if these kids are off onto a lifetime of consuming these sugar beverages and they prefer my brand over yours or yours over mine, that’s how these companies cash in. And they treasure those children in a perverse way and need the kids for their future business.”

Are Their Tactics Working?

Nearly two-thirds (61%) of U.S. children and youth consume sugary drinks each day; among children ages 2 to 4, nearly half (46%) do. Black and Latinx children consume more sugary drinks than white or Asian children do.

Percentage of kids ages 2 to 19 who consume sugary drinks on any given day, by race and ethnicity. Source: NHANES, What We Eat in America, 2015-16

And the latest national data from 2017-2018 show 19.3% of children ages 2 to 19 have obesity, with rates disproportionately higher among Black, Hispanic, and Mexican American youth.

As the pandemic and its related economic consequences continue, experts believe kids’ risk for obesity may be increasing due to limited access to healthy food, fewer places or chances to be physically active, and families facing financial challenges. Increased risk for obesity, may increase risk for harmful outcomes from the COVID-19 virus. This is especially concerning among kids of color, who have higher rates of obesity and have been disproportionately impacted by the pandemic.

Learn more about how sugary drinks harm kids’ health and policy efforts to address the problem.


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