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  • A Coca-Cola Christmas truck, similar to those cruising the UK this year, stands in front of a shopping mall in Zurich.

    A Coca-Cola Christmas truck, similar to those cruising the UK this year, stands in front of a shopping mall in Zurich. | Photo: Reuters

Global soft-drink giant ignores UK health authorities’ warnings that publicity drive and cuts in social services can leave poor parents with a seasonal nightmare.

Ahead of Christmas this year, the UK's public health authorities waged a losing battle in November, trying to urge local councils to ban visits from promotional Coca-Cola trucks because of sugar's key role in rotting children's teeth and making them fat.

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As they do every year across the UK, the global soft-drinks giant this year advertised it would send 14-tonne lorries, decorated with fairy lights and fake snow, to visit towns, cities and landmarks to advertise its products.

It was sending two articulated lorries to 42 locations in England and Scotland, "delivering Christmas cheer up and down the country" by offering free 150ml samples of its main three drinks – Coca-Cola Classic, Coca-Cola Zero Sugar and Diet Coke – in the trucks, each lit by 372 bulbs and 8,772 fairy lights.

Tooth Decay and Obesity

As it turned out, most of the places the trucks planned to stop have above-average rates of children with tooth decay or obesity, including Bolton, where 40.5 percent of five-year-olds have rotting teeth: the highest number of all the areas on the trucks' stop list.

Overall, 61 percent of the stops were in places where both five-year-olds and 12-year-olds have higher rates of rotting teeth than the UK average. The same proportion of targeted places also has an unusually high number of 10- and 11-year-olds already overweight or obese, while 56 percent have above-average numbers of 'dangerously overweight' kids, aged three and four, in infant schools.

But never mind the complaints and warnings: the Coca-Cola bus tour began on 11 November in Glasgow and, by November 30, the company said the trucks had made 397 stops and covered 730,000 miles.

Unhealthy Choices

Without specifically naming Coca-Cola, the public health authorities issued a statement saying: "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."

They also pointed out that "linking fizzy drinks with the fun of the festive season is a marketing tactic and not good for child health."

But the mega-multinational's powerful PR machine went into overdrive, arguing: "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.

"We are 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."

The health authorities' loud protests notwithstanding, Coca-Cola opted to remain deafeningly silent.

Born in Controversy

Anyone surprised at the company's response – or rather, lack thereof – knows little or nothing about its history. The original product was born and raised in controversy.

Coca-Cola was first created in 1886 by Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton, who modeled his beverage after a then-popular French refreshment, coca wine, made by mixing coca-leaf extract with Bordeaux wine.

According to a 2013 article by Elizabeth Palermo, associate editor of Live Science, "Until 1903, the world-famous soft drink contained a significant dose of cocaine. While the Coca-Cola Company officially denies the presence of cocaine in any of its products — past or present — historical evidence suggests that the original Coca-Cola did, in fact, contain cocaine.

"To avoid liquor regulations, Pemberton chose to mix his coca-leaf extract with sugar syrup instead of wine. He also added kola-nut extract, lending Coca-Cola the second half of its name, as well as an extra jolt of caffeine."

The article points out that while cocaine-infused beverages may seem far-fetched to modern readers, these drinks were quite common in the late 19th century. In fact, cocaine was not made illegal in the United States until 1914 – and, until then, the substance had a variety of (sometimes questionable) medical uses.

Cocaine tonics, powders and pills were popularly believed to cure a variety of ailments, from headache and fatigue to constipation, nausea, asthma and impotence. "But by 1903," Palermo points out, "the tide of public opinion had turned against the widely used and abused narcotic, leading the Coca-Cola Company's then-manager, Asa Griggs Candler, to remove nearly all cocaine from the company's beverages."

Cocaine-free?

But Coca-Cola wouldn't become completely cocaine-free until 1929, when scientists perfected the process of removing all psychoactive elements from coca-leaf extract. "While the modern-day recipe for Coca-Cola is a highly prized company secret, there is reason to believe that the beverage still contains the same non-narcotic coca-leaf extract that it did in 1929," Palermo writes.

According to The New York Times, the Coca-Cola Company was continuing to import coca leaves from Peru and Bolivia until at least the late 1980s. Its formula still a highly protected company secret, and so it isn't known to what extent, if any, Coca-Cola still contains cocaine today.

But the children the company is targeting in the UK include not only those described by the health authorities, but also those from families less able to ensure they make healthy choices for their children.

Poorer and Hungrier

Statistics released by British charities and state institutions in late November indicated that in London alone, some 70,000 children go to school hungry every day, with 25 percent of poor parents worrying about how to feed their kids and 20 percent having to choose between heating their homes or feeding their children.

Most poor families across the UK are led by a parent working two underpaid jobs, the reports point out, but they get poorer and hungrier as a result of cuts in their tax credits, while their children's benefits are frozen, thresholds for free school meals are lowered, and education-maintenance allowances are removed.

One in seven poor families in the relies on charities and food banks, and one-third of parents feel they cannot afford the healthier food they know their children should have.

The Institute of Fiscal Studies (IFS) projects that by 2020, 36 percent of Britain's children will have fallen below the poverty line: the highest since records began. It also found that the number of children living in poverty is set to rise to a record 5.2 million over the next five years, up from about 4 million at present.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation, another UK charity, says almost 400,000 more children have been plunged into poverty over the past four years.

Families with children have faced an entire decade of cuts to their incomes, including £12 billion (US$16bn) slashed from the social budget in April 2017 by then Chancellor of the Exchequer George Osborne (minister of finance).

Osborne also imposed a euphemized 'bedroom tax,' plus a rule that only two children in a family can now qualify for state support. To get support for a third, there's the infamous 'Rape Clause,' whereby the mother must declare the third child was conceived 'by force.'

Today, Osborne is the editor of London's Evening Standard newspaper, which joined other popular UK newspapers to launch annual Christmas charities, especially in the name of London's poor children.

Contradiction

An Evening Standard editorial penned at the end of November said: "It is dispiriting that in a prosperous, civilized capital, so many children do not eat decent, nutritious meals."

Polly Toynbee, an opinion writer for The Guardian newspaper, wrote a scathing reply on November 30: "George Osborne was the most deliberately, intentionally, knowingly poverty causing chancellor of modern times. The cuts now raining down yet harder on the poorest were designed by him, and left in place by Theresa May, for all her crocodile tears for the just-about-managing.

"Osborne must step over the burgeoning numbers of homeless sleeping rough, who may be grateful for his free newspaper for their bedding. Now he pleads for charitable donations to relieve the child hunger he helped create. Does the contradiction cross his mind?"

Clearly, between the accumulated effects of the government's deep cuts in poor working parents and children's benefits, and the annual free Coca-Cola giveaways, the UK's poorest souls were hardly assured a Merry Christmas this year.

Earl Bousquet is a Saint Lucia-based veteran Caribbean journalist.

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