It wasn’t so long ago that beautiful women were smoking cigarettes seductively on yachts
floating across billboards. And it wasn’t too long before that, that doctors were endorsing a
generous daily dose of camel cigarettes. In 1946, in response to growing concerns about
lung cancer being associated with smoking, Camel launched an advertisement campaign,
‘More doctors smoke camels.” They funded the examination of hundreds of smokers’
throats and reported “not one single throat irritation.” Fast forward 77 years. One average
life, perhaps not one of a smoker and we are dealing with a different advertising and health
pandemic. Sugar, addiction and a health care crisis.
I drive along the M1 towards Sandton every morning. The billboards are a source of satirical
commentary. Buy more shoes, get less complicated insurance, feed a hungry child, eat
something unhealthy. Coca-Cola’s snaps of a happy South African family partaking in a late
night meal of Coca-Cola and pepperoni pizza takes the cake. They look almost elated,
holding the secret to life in processed meat and refined sugar. The suggestion that we
consume these things after dark, when our metabolisms are at their slowest gets me even
hotter under the collar. Burger King is not far behind. It’s everywhere. No one is glamorizing
eating your greens.
According to a Western Cape report published in 2022, more than 60% of South African
women and 30% of South African men are obese. Being obese puts you at extremely high
risk of diabetes, hypertension, depression and cardiovascular disease. After TB, these
diseases kill more South Africans than any other. Nearly a third of the global population is
obese with these figures almost tripling between 1975 and 2016.
Prof Karen Hofman writes, “Just a single sugary beverage per day increases a child’s chance
of being overweight by 55%. Similarly, once they become an overweight teen, there is a 70%
chance they will not be able to lose the weight in adulthood.”
The average grade 4 pupil consumes two sugary drinks a day with approximately 9
teaspoons of sugar per drink. The recommended daily allowance for children is 6 teaspoons
a day in total including sugar contained in fruit. Lower socio-economic status and level of
education along with having one obese parent significantly increases the risk of a child being
obese( 5 ). Pair the current adult stats with the sugary drink consumption and we are sitting
on a time bomb.
James Clear, a behavioural psychologist, often reinforces that environment is more powerful
than will power. It’s much easier not to drink a fizzy cool drink if you don’t have one. In a
school audit done in 2019, nearly a third of schools were found to have Coca-Cola
advertising on school grounds. In 2017, Coca-Cola pledged to stop marketing their drinks to
children under 12, promising to remove such products from primary schools and replace
them with 100% juice and other low kilojoule alternatives. It must be said that a box of
100% juice contains more sugar than a child’s daily recommended allowance too, often
equivalent to a fizzy drink. Juice is NOT healthy. A Witz audit in 2019, two years after coke’s
pledge, reflected 54% of schools stocking coke and other fizzy cooldrinks on tuckshop
shelves. It’s ironic that their tag line is “Refresh the world. Make a difference.”
The looming impact of this obesity pandemic on our already broken health care system is a
crisis far worse and far more expensive than COVID-19.
It’s hard not to sound evangelical about this, but there are no advertisements on the
highway for cocaine, heroine or nyope. We know that if we put rats in a cage and offer them
sugar water or cocaine water, they choose the sugar. Our sweet taste receptors evolved in a
time when sources of sweetness were scarce and the exposure of these taste buds to
refined, concentrated sugars give rise to a dopaminergic surge in the reward pathway of the
brain. Inundation of our blood streams with surges of glucose, lead to dysregulation of our
carbohydrate metabolism setting us on a path towards insulin resistance and diabetes. Once
a person becomes insulin resistant, without a change in behaviour, they are on a certain and
determined path towards becoming diabetic.
The complications of poorly managed diabetes are not limited to amputations, kidney
failure, heart attack, depression and stroke.
The cost of obesity annually in this country is R33 billion. This represents 15.38% of
government health expenditure. Imagine what we could do if we invested this in sustainable
agriculture and education. These costs were calculated from the age of 15 and don’t
consider childhood obesity.
Life has changed dramatically in the last 50 years. While innovation and technology surge,
intuitive and insightful use of and respect for our magnificent, human bodies diminishes.
Organs bathed in a sugary soup are predictably maladaptive. We can help change this
narrative by rehydrating ourselves and our families with water. We can demand more from
schools, hospitals and organizations who dish out sugary, fizzy drinks and juices to their
pupils, patients, and employees daily. We can demand more from government regulations
to protect us from harmful advertising.
Join my campaign on the war against sugar. We cannot rely on willpower; we are only