Last week, we learned that the sugar industry paid Harvard scientists to minimize the link between sugar and heart disease, blaming saturated fat instead. Unfortunately, scientific evidence isn’t the only thing the industry has been influencing: a soda company in Colombia has successfully pushed for the suspension of a television advertisement warning the public about the health effects of sugary beverages.
Last week, the Colombian government ordered an NGO, Educar Consumidores, to suspend a television advertisement on the health risks associated with drinking sugary beverages. The order to pull the ad followed a complaint from Colombia’s largest beverage company and Pepsi affiliate, Gaseosas Postobon, which claimed the ad misled consumers in breach of Colombian law.
The “Tomala en Serio” ad campaign
The “Tomala en Serio television ad” shows a man drinking sugary beverages throughout the day: a bottled juice in the morning, an iced tea at lunch time, and sodas in the evening. The images are accompanied by graphics showing how many teaspoons of sugar are in each drink.
A voiceover tells consumers that seemingly harmless beverage consumption “adds up to a lot of extra sugar that can cause serious health problems including obesity, which causes diabetes, heart disease, and some types of cancer.” The ad includes graphic images depicting these health conditions.
The ad concludes by urging the public not to harm themselves by drinking sweetened beverages and recommends drinking water, milk or tea (without sugar) instead.
The Colombian ad is based closely on NYC’s “Do you drink 93 sugar packets a day?” television advertisement that was aired as part of its “Pouring on the Pounds” campaign. A very similar ad, “No te hagas daño tomando bebidas azucaradas” aired in Mexico in 2013.
The decision suspending the “Tomala en Serio” ad campaign
The decision from the Superintendent of Industry and Commerce found that the ad contained inaccurate and misleading information about the health impacts of consuming sugary beverages. The superintendent found that the ads messages were not supported by scientific evidence, noting a lack of scientific certainty in terms of the causal relationship between sugar consumption and diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and certain types of cancer.
Industry’s interference with scientific evidence also undermines legal decisions
Just as these ads say, sugary beverage consumption is a significant contributor to weight gain and overweight and obesity are important risk factors for type 2 diabetes, heart disease, cancer, and premature death. The superintendent’s decision, which was reached without a hearing, is based on an incorrect understanding of the scientific evidence. The decision to suspend the ban is based heavily on the superintendent’s finding of “lack of evidence,” rendering the decision flawed. Unfortunately, the decision doesn’t stop there; the order requires Educar Consumidores to seek pre-approval for future ads concerning sugary beverages.
Educar Consumidores should consider its options for challenging the superintendent’s decision in court, with a view to reinstating the “Tomala en Serio” advertisement and ensuring that the association can continue its efforts to educate the public on the dangers of sugary beverages. The government’s restraint of current and future noncommercial educational campaigns is particularly concerning. Clear arguments could be made based on the right to health, freedom of expression, and consumer protection.
It is unacceptable that the superintendent has relied on consumer protection laws, namely the consumer’s right to information, to ban an advertisement that provides clear and accurate information on the health effects of drinking sugary beverages. Following in the footsteps of tobacco, Big Soda is co-opting human rights arguments, courts, and quasi-judicial making bodies to undermine a fundamental human right: the right to health.
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The views reflected in this blog are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.