On Wednesday, the European nutrition watchdog Foodwatch accused Coca-Cola of trying to preserve its "completely outdated" business model by adopting the desperate tactics of tobacco giants to deny the devastating health impact of its products.
Foodwatch also called on the German government to follow the example set by several other European countries, most recently the UK, in introducing a "sugar tax," which has already encouraged companies elsewhere to come up with new recipes with less sugar.
"Sugary drinks are the new cigarettes," Martin Rücker, the director of Foodwatch Germany, said at a crowded press conference in a Berlin hotel on Wednesday — an analogy that was underlined by the photoshopped cover of the NGO's new "Coca-Cola Report": an image of the Marlboro Man holding an old-fashioned glass Coke bottle instead of cigarette.
Rücker was also sitting next to an empty chair with the soda-maker's logo fixed to its back, which was intended for Patrick Kammerer, the head of Coca-Cola Germany's public relations department, who had declined an invitation to appear.
Foodwatch accused Coca-Cola of using "irresponsible" marketing and lobbying measures to protect its estimated global market share of 24 percent (or as much as 36 percent in Germany) — especially by "consciously targeting children and young people" in its advertising campaigns.
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Influencing the influencers
In the 108-page report, Foodwatch showed that the Coca-Cola company had recruited dozens of YouTube and Instagram stars, some of whom have millions of young followers in Germany, to advertise its flagship soft drink. Coca-Cola Germany has claimed that it does not target commercials toward children younger than 12, but Foodwatch pointed to the company's deals with the national football team and its annual recruitment of Santa Claus for advertisements as evidence that the soft drink giant is clearly trying to win over young consumers. "When the horn honks and the glowing Coca-Cola Christmas Truck comes round the corner," goes the slogan for one German ad featuring Santa, " the dreams of many children are fulfilled."
Foodwatch found parallels to the tobacco industry in the way in which Coca-Cola has denied that there is any clear scientific proof that its drinks are bad for you. Almost as if to illustrate the point, the company put out a statement ahead of Wednesday's press conference to head off Foodwatch's criticism.
"Obesity is a complex phenomenon," Kammerer, Coca-Cola's PR man, said in an in-house Q&A posted on the company's website. "If there were a simple, direct connection between the consumption of sugary refreshment drinks and obesity, it should be in the statistics. But, according to the data of the World Health Organization (WHO), this assumption is not true. One example: In countries like Finland, where young people consume very few soft drinks, there is a high rate of overweightness. In the Netherlands it is the exact opposite."
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Foodwatch's Rücker said this was exactly the kind of obfuscation that tobacco companies had used to deny the connection between cigarettes and cancer. "The products are being systematically made harmless," he said. "These aren't refreshments: They're diabetes causers. And Coca-Cola is doing everything it can to preserve its completely outdated business model."
Both the WHO and the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development have reported that the world is in the grip of an "obesity epidemic" that is causing more and more cases of diabetes, gout, heart disease and colon cancer. According to Foodwatch, 80 percent of independently financed studies have found a link between sugary drinks and obesity. The NGO also found that Germany is in the top 10 countries with the highest diabetes rates and that boys between the ages of 14 and 17 consume an average of half a liter (1 US pint) of sugary beverages per day.
'So little progress'
The UK's sugar tax is set to come into force on Friday, with drinks companies having had two years to prepare. For drinks with 5.1 to 8 grams of sugar per 100 milliliters (.18-.28 ounce per 3.4 fluid ounces), companies must pay 18 pence (€0.20/$0.25) per liter produced — and 24 pence for anything above 8 grams. A handful of other European countries have introduced a similar levy, including Portugal, France, Belgium, Hungary, Norway, Finland and Estonia.
Despite warnings that this would result in higher prices for consumers, and smaller cans, many companies have responded by introducing new low-sugar ranges — one British soft drink company, Irn-Bru, has scrapped its original high-sugar recipe entirely.
So what is holding Germany back? At Wednesday's weekly government press conference, Friederike Lenz, spokeswoman for the Food and Agriculture Ministry, said plans to reduce sugar in food — as promised in the coalition agreement — had not yet been laid out, but added that a sugar tax would not be part of them.
"One reason why Germany is making so little progress is that the Food Ministry is also responsible for health protection of consumers," Foodwatch campaign director Oliver Huizinga said. "Unlike in other countries, here the sugar lobby's interests and the food industry's interests are represented in the same ministry as the protection of consumers' health — their interests directly contradict each other."
The result, Huizinga said, is that the German government is constantly trying to compromise with food companies without actually threatening their profit margins, resulting in mealy-mouthed initiatives such as "improving nutritional education" and promoting sports in schools, which, though helpful, have proved to be of little value in combating obesity.
"They're seeking a consensus that is impossible," Rücker said.