Down to Earth - - EDITOR’S PAGE - @suni­ta­nar

PUL­LELA GOPIC­HAND is a na­tional hero, but not just be­cause he has painstak­ingly coached two bad­minton Olympic medal­ists—first Saina Ne­hwal and now P V Sindhu. Gopic­hand is a na­tional hero be­cause he is the only In­dian sportsper­son who has pub­licly shunned en­dors­ing soft drinks. He has made it clear that these drinks are not good for health and cer­tainly not good for sportsper­sons, so he will not pro­mote the prod­uct, what­ever the fi­nan­cial in­duce­ment. This is im­por­tant be­cause these drinks are in­deed junk—empty calo­ries, which pro­vide sugar with­out nu­tri­tion—and are to­day in­dicted for obe­sity world over. But the rest of our sports and film icons, from Ma­hen­dra Singh Dhoni to Shah Rukh Khan, are happy to make money by pro­mot­ing prod­ucts that are bad for our health.

Should they be al­lowed to do so? The govern­ment is con­sid­er­ing amend­ing the Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion Act to pro­vide for five-year jail term or a penalty of R50 lakh to hold celebri­ties re­spon­si­ble for false and mis­lead­ing claims. But there is a catch. The same amend­ment pro­vides that there will be no li­a­bil­ity if pre­cau­tions are taken and due dili­gence is done be­fore de­cid­ing to en­dorse a prod­uct. In other words, this amend­ment re­ally amounts to noth­ing. Even then brand am­bas­sadors and their lack­eys are busy op­pos­ing the very idea of be­ing held ac­count­able, though they are ready to take all the money. And the govern­ment, weak-kneed as it is be­fore pow­er­ful brands, has de­cided to take a relook.

Frankly, I be­lieve this amend­ment was a dis­trac­tion and is mean­ing­less. What we re­ally need is clear reg­u­la­tions against celebrity en­dorse­ment of prod­ucts that are known to be junk and harm­ful to health. Mar­ion Nes­tle, who teaches at the New York Univer­sity, has in her re­cent book, Soda Pol­i­tics, de­scribed the in­flu­ence of mar­ket­ing through which prod­ucts that are lit­er­ally flavoured wa­ter with loads of sugar have been turned into sym­bols of fun, hap­pi­ness and glam­our.

The strat­egy is twofold. One, to ma­nip­u­late pol­icy so that the health is­sues re­lated to co­las are ob­fus­cated. Two, to un­leash celebrity pro­mo­tion so that the prod­uct is made as­pi­ra­tional—not a drink but a life­style choice. In her thor­oughly re­searched vol­ume, Nes­tle ex­plains that it was in 1942, when the US Coun­cil on Food and Nu­tri­tion noted that a 20 per cent rise in soft drink con­sump­tion since 1939 was show­ing up in ill-health and obe­sity. In 1977, its ad­vice was fol­lowed up in the US govern­ment’s di­etary goals that asked for a star­tling 45 per cent re­duc­tion in the in­take of sugar to bring it down to 10 per cent or less of calo­ries in peo­ple’s daily diet. This was to be done by elim­i­nat­ing soft drinks from diet, said US guide­lines.

But this ad­vice was not ad­hered to. In­stead, it was turned con­vo­luted. Straight­for­ward words like “avoid drink­ing” be­came “choose and pre­pare”. Sugar as a prob­lem dis­ap­peared in the di­etary guide­lines to be­come one with solid fats such as but­ter and an­i­mal fat. A new word called “so­fas”— solid fat and sugar—was brought in. The ad­vice was lost and the guide­lines were di­luted. It is in­ter­est­ing that the cola com­pa­nies did the same in a re­cent In­dian govern­ment com­mit­tee (in which I was a mem­ber) by in­sist­ing that the word junk food be re­placed by an acro­nym hfss— food high in fat, salt and sugar. Busi­ness must go on as usual.

But when busi­ness learns that the writ­ing is on the wall—obe­sity is a mas­sive prob­lem in the world to­day—com­pa­nies ac­cept the prob­lem and change tack, but all to self-reg­u­late. Nes­tle cites re­ports by the Yale Rudd Cen­ter, first in 2011 and then in 2014, to show how cola com­pa­nies’ vol­un­tary guide­lines to re­strict mar­ket­ing to chil­dren were mean­ing­less. In 2014, the two ma­jor com­pa­nies, Coca Cola and Pepsi Cola, spent US $866 in the US alone to ad­ver­tise un­healthy drinks. This was four times what they spent on their health­ier op­tions. There were 30-40 per cent more ad­ver­tise­ments tar­get­ing chil­dren, par­tic­u­larly His­panic, than be­fore. This was their idea of be­ing re­spon­si­ble. This is why there need to be clear codes on celebrity en­dorse­ment of such prod­ucts. Gov­ern­ments are learn­ing that self-reg­u­la­tion will not work. For in­stance, New Zealand has a Chil­dren’s Code for Ad­ver­tise­ment of Food, which clearly states that “per­sons or char­ac­ters well­known to chil­dren shall not be used in ad­ver­tise­ments to pro­mote food as to un­der­mine a healthy diet”.

In In­dia, the brand lobby is out to en­sure that this does not hap­pen. In 2014, the High Court of Delhi had asked the Food Safety and Stan­dards Author­ity of In­dia ( fssai) to fi­nalise and is­sue guide­lines on junk food, in­clud­ing celebrity en­dorse­ment. But fssai mem­bers, for rea­sons best known to them, are sit­ting on the mat­ter. Clearly, our health is not their con­cern, com­pany prof­its are.

So let’s cel­e­brate Gopic­hand. Hope his breed will in­crease. We need him not just for sports ex­cel­lence, but also for our health.

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