Here’s a difficult question: “Why is it that we can buy Coca-Cola beverages virtually anywhere when basic health products like oral rehydration therapy or condoms are unavailable in many of those same places?” “Difficult, difficult, lemon difficult”, as Simon Foster might say. Actually, it’s not difficult really, even if clever people like Jeffrey Sturchio of Rabin Martin, previously head of the Global Health Council, previously head of corporate social responsibility at Merck is left scratching his head. Not difficult at all. If you’ve always wanted to be a manufacturer of sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs), this is what you do:
- Create a product with very high profit margins (Coca-Cola’s margin is one quarter of the retail price) and make a load of money;
- Spend a lot of that money marketing your product. In Coca-Cola’s case, $2.6bn (2006);
- Spend a lot more of that money advertising your product, particularly to children. Coca-Cola spent $2.9bn doing this in 2009 (recall that the World Health Organisation’s entire two year budget is $4.5bn);
- Ensure that your customers keep buying your product by investing in 2 and 3 above. It also helps if your product is addictive;
- Use all the influence your money can buy to hijack the market with a few like-minded SSB manufacturers (i.e. establish an oligopoly);
- Don’t pay more tax than you absolutely have to so that you have more money with which to hawk your product;
- Make sure you have an obedient workforce (preferably children) who won’t cause you any trouble by demanding things like better working conditions, and won’t say bad things about your working practices because they’re too afraid;
- Create a kindly, caring public persona – brown-washing – so that everyone loves you and, by extension, your product.
- Sponsor Father Christmas
This goes someway to explaining Sturchio’s “why” question: the leading SSB multi-national corporations have their products in every store because they have a lot of money and they spend a large chunk of it on getting you to want to buy their products, and a chunk more making sure you can. There’s no great mystery here.
What is mysterious is how many people think it’s a good idea to piggyback on the economically and morally reprehensible practices of SSBs in order to get “basic health products” to the people who need them.