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Posted on Thu 2nd Oct, 2014 in: Industry Comment, Influence, Issues Management, Public Relations by Jenny Wilkinson

Sugar has once again hit the headlines, this time because it is being held responsible for the declining state of children's teeth, with kids as young as three suffering from tooth decay. The latest stats published by Public Health England (PHE) show that, in a recent survey of youngsters, 12% of children showed evidence of tooth decay, with an average of three teeth that were decayed, missing or filled.

The finger of blame, according to PHE, is pointed firmly at sugary foods and drinks and parents are advised to give children these "high risk"? products in smaller quantities and less often, or even not at all.

The soft drinks and food industries are coming under relentless pressure over their responsibility in this issue. The demands for them to be sugar-responsible are increasing. Health organisations are ramping up their research and warnings, with sugary products being increasingly blamed for a myriad rising health problems, including obesity and diabetes. As governments face escalating healthcare costs, the growing body of research on sugar could push them to use taxes or step up regulation to force through changes in eating habits. Calls to reduce or remove all the sugars from products, and for new labelling to be introduced with anything above 2.5% sugars being tagged as 'high', are just a couple of the suggested solutions. The biggest one by far is the idea of a sugar tax. It's a complex area and one that global food brands are trying to tackle from a manufacturing perspective to stem the rising tide of criticism. So far the industry has broadly avoided extra regulation and tax through voluntary deals. Nestl̩ says it reduced sugar in its products overall by 30 per cent over the 10 years to 2011. Last year it also cut saturated fat in its Kit Kat wafers by 11 per cent. Unilever has set itself a target of lowering sugar in its Lipton tea-based drinks by 25 per cent by 2020. However, despite these efforts, the social stigma around refined sugar is starting to stick. There is an increasing consumer backlash against the soft drinks and food industry with a downward trend in fizzy drink sales since 2010. The bottom line is that consumer attitudes affect sales and, ultimately, this is increasingly becoming a reputational issue for these brands rather than a manufacturing one. In turn this is creating increasing challenges for those responsible for the PR and marketing of these products as there is a real risk they could become "toxic" brands. There is a huge need for the food, soft drinks and sugar industries to take ownership of this issue and address it before it gets out of control. But what strategy should they take? We've seen the alcohol industry face a similar attack. And whilst there are still concerns around the issues of a binge drinking culture, a collaborative industry-wide approach has resolved a lot of reputational issues. The creation of Drinkaware, an independent charity supported by voluntary donations from the drinks industry and from major UK supermarkets, and The Portman Group established directly by the UK's leading alcohol producers has gone a long way in fostering a balanced understanding of alcohol-related issues and turned it more into a societal debate. As an industry, alcohol brands claimed responsibility and are working to reduce alcohol misuse and harm through education and awareness. I think a similar approach will benefit the food and soft drinks industry. It's not so much the need to quash the health claims, which is the mistake that the tobacco industry made, but rather take them on board and use them to educate and inform consumers about refined and natural sugar as part of a wider discussion around a healthy balanced diet. Certain brands are doing this in isolation. Sugar company AB Sugar has just launched its "Making Sense of Sugar" campaign aimed at improving understanding of its product. But what seems to be missing is consistent messaging through one clear voice helping educate consumers in making informed and balanced decisions. The power to change and influence will come from a collective approach, rather than isolated brands fighting to try and achieve some cut through. Ridiculous as it sounds - what if Colgate could team up with Robinsons, Chupa Chups and the PHE? Surely consumers and brands could all benefit from taking a collaborative approach to addressing the issues? Until an industry-wide PR strategy and positioning is established, the demonisation of high sugar products by the media will be the only voice that's heard and sugar will continue to leave a bitter taste in the consumer's mouth.

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