Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) are the leading global source of added sugar intake and their consumption is associated with negative health outcomes, such as diabetes, cancers, cardiovascular diseases, and overall mortality. Despite consensus within the public health community about the need to reduce sugar intake, the non-alcoholic beverage industry engages in efforts to publicly undermine the evidence base surrounding the harmful effects of SSBs. There has been limited investigation of how SSB industry actors engage in public debates to challenge public health research and policy on SSBs. To address this gap, we thematically analyze the public comments and press releases of the British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) since May 2014.
A total of 175 news articles and 7 press releases were identified where the BSDA commented upon new SSB research in public settings. In these comments, four strategies were observed to undermine new research. First, the BSDA challenged study rigour and research design (n = 150). They challenged the policy implications of research by stating observational studies do not demonstrate causation, refuted data sources, questioned researcher motivations, and claimed research design did not account for confounding factors. Second, the BSDA positioned themselves as an altruistic public health partner (n = 52) intent on improving population-level nutrition citing their voluntary industry commitments. Third, the BSDA promoted concepts of safety that align with industry interests (n = 47). Lastly, the BSDA argued that the lifestyle of individual consumers should be the focus of public health interventions rather than the industry (n = 61).
The findings illustrate the BSDA reliance on arguments of causation to discredit research and avoid policy interventions. Given the attention by the BSDA regarding the purported lack of evidence of causation between SSBs and non-communicable diseases, it is imperative that members of the public health community try to educate policy makers about (a) the complex nature of causation; (b) that evidence in favour of public health interventions cannot, and do not, solely rely on causation studies; and (c) that public health must sometimes abide by the precautionary principle in instituting interventions.