Food and pharmaceutical industries win big in 2007 International Bad Products Awards

In Fall 2007, Consumers International—a federation of more than 220 consumer groups in 115 countries that work together to protect and empower consumers around the world—released its International Bad Products Awards for 2007. Nominations for the list were submitted by CI international member organizations and the winners were chosen by the CI Secretariat. Topping the list this year were products of the food and beverage industry and Big Pharma.

How to sell tap water and make a profit:

Coca-Cola was one of CI’s top winners and received the honor for their repackaging of tap water sold under the brand name Dasani. Dasani’s source is not obvious on the bottle itself or in Coca-Cola’s marketing. However, in the FAQ of the Dasani website, the company states Dasani is created with the local water supply, which is then filtered for purity using a state-of-the-art process called reverse osmosis. The purified water is then enhanced with a special blend of minerals for a pure, crisp, fresh taste. The website calls attention to the mouthwatering taste of flavored Dasani beverages and notes that Dasani Plus is enhanced with nutrients and delicious flavors giving you what your taste buds want and the goodness your body craves.

Coke introduced Dasani in 1999 as a purified, noncarbonated water with minerals added. In 2003, the company hired the New York ad firm Berlin Cameron/Red Cell, part of the Red Cell division of the WPP Group, to design a campaign for Dasani. The Berlin Cameron/Red Cell ads portrayed Dasani, at that time the #2 bottled water behind Pepsi’s Aquafina, as a beverage associated with youth and sexuality. The New York Times described the ads as: replete with quick editing cuts, fast-paced music and fast-moving plot. Then, too, there is all the sexiness, as embodied by multiple scenes of attractive young people dancing, running and embracing, interspersed with shots of water splashing into open mouths.

A year later, however, questions emerged about the health benefits of enhanced tap water. Only weeks after Dasani was launched in Great Britain, Coke was forced to recall more than 500,000 bottles after tests found excess levels of bromate. Bromate is a chemical produced in Dasani’s water purification process. A recent review concluded that based on an extensive database of relevant research, it is reasonable to assume that bromate induces tumors via oxidative damage that causes chromosomal breakage. British law permits 10 parts of bromate per billion; Dasani water was found to contain up to 25 parts per billion. Long term exposure to bromate is linked to a higher risk for cancer. Following the recall, Coca-Cola halted a scheduled April 2004 release in France and Germany.

Despite these recalls, Coca-Cola’s Dasani brand sales have continued to grow internationally and in the United States. In October 2007 Coca-Cola reported a 13% quarterly profits increase, largely due to international sales. Worldwide sales volume for noncarbonated beverages rose 14%, as compared to 4% for carbonated drinks. The difference in sales between carbonated and noncarbonated beverages may be due to the increasing evidence that consumption of soda is linked to obesity. In the US, this concern has resulted in more consumers choosing water and other purportedly healthful beverage options. Although Coca-Cola does not deny the source of their Dasani water, as CI points out, their advertising is misleading in that it uses terms such as pure, crisp and fresh. As CI stated in awarding its Bad Product listing, by bottling up this universal resource to sell back to us, corporations such as Coca-Cola have created a US$100 billion industry at the same time when one billion people in the world lack access to safe drinking water. Making profits out of increasingly fragile water supplies is unsustainable, irresponsible and against the basic rights of consumers everywhere.

Hey Kids! Develop amazing physical attributes with 40% sugar!

Another winner of the 2007 Bad Product Award was the Kellogg Company for its marketing of low nutrient junk food to children. According to CI, Kellogg’s achieved global net sales of $10.9 billion in 2006 and spent $916 million on advertising. Kellogg President-CEO David Mackay stated that of the total amount spent on advertising in the United States, 27% is directed to children under age 12. Increasing concern over food and beverage marketing to children has put pressure on Kellogg’s and other big food companies. In response to this pressure, including a 2006 lawsuit threatened by Center for Science and the Public Interest and the Campaign for Commercial-Free Childhood, Kellogg’s agreed to make changes.

During the second half of 2007 and 2008, Kellogg’s promised to stop advertising many of its most popular items to children under 12 if these products did not conform to new nutrition guidelines limiting sugar to no more than 12 grams and total calories to no more than 200 per serving. The company also promised to work on reducing salt and fat, limiting per serving amounts to no more than 230 milligrams of sodium, zero grams of trans fat and no more than 2 grams of saturated fat. Kellogg’s further agreed to limit licensed cartoon characters in its ads and to not advertise in schools.

Despite these promised changes, Kellogg’s still won a CI award for its low nutrient food marketing to children. One reason for this dubious honor is that while Kellogg’s is making changes in the U.S market, it seems to be business as usual around the world. CI reported that Kellogg’s marketed cereals containing between 33-40% sugar to children around the world. In addition, Kellogg’s continued to use cartoon characters and other imagery appealing to children to market their high sugar cereals. In Australia, CI reports, Kellogg’s used social networking techniques aimed at children to promote Coco Pops while in the UK, the same cereal was cross promoted with the film Shrek. The most egregious example, however, came from Mexico where Kellogg’s ads promised children that their high sugar cereals would help children develop amazing physical attributes, according to CI. Thanks to the advocacy efforts of El Poder del Consumidor, a CI member organization, the ads were pulled.

Back to school with sleeping pills.

Top honors in the CI Bad Products Awards went to the US subsidiary of Takeda Pharmaceuticals for marketing sleeping pills to children. Takeda, a US $10 billion company, is the largest pharmaceutical maker in Japan. It was their promotion of sleeping aid Rozerem that earned them the overall Bad Product Award with CI. Why? Because of Takeda’s September 2006 ten second ad featuring images of school bus and images of children wearing backpacks and writing on chalkboards with the voiceover, Rozerem would like to remind you that it’s back to school season. Ask your doctor today if Rozerem is right for you.

Beyond the generally distressing suggestion that children be prescribed sleeping aids, Takeda’s own product labeling states that It is not known what effect chronic or even chronic intermittent use of ROZEREM may have on the reproductive axis in developing humans…Safety and effectiveness of ROZEREM in pediatric patients have not been established. In addition, Rozerem is associated with increased thoughts of suicide in adults.

According to CI, it took the FDA six months to remove the ad, long after the ‘back to school’ promotion had gone. However, in March 2007, the agency sent Takeda Pharmaceuticals a letter stating: The combination of these statements and images of school-aged children and school-related objects suggests that Rozerem is indicated for and can be safely used in the pediatric population. The FDA also noted that the ads failed to present the indication and information relating to major side effects and must make adequate provision for dissemination of the FDA-approved labeling.

Despite these violations, the FDA did not fine Takeda, which in 2006 spent $118 million on advertising Rozerem alone. During the same year, Big Pharma spent $600 million on advertising sleeping products. Sales of sleeping aids continued to rise, increasing 60% between 2000 and 2005. In addition, in the adult population, the FDA has raised concerns that sleeping aids are associated with strange side effects such as sleeping walking, hallucinations, violent outburst, nocturnal driving and engaging in sexual intercourse during sleep.

In the past, pharmaceutical companies have sought to increase their market through direct-to-consumer marketing and advertising to physicians. However, just as Big Tobacco learned the value of enticing young people to smoke or to associate tobacco brands with good feelings, it seems that Big Pharma is now increasingly and directly going after a youth market as well. As early as 2000, the New York Times described campaigns by Roche Pharmaceuticals and others to promote prescription acne medications directly to teens. One pharmaceutical industry consultant told the Times, The idea is to expand the market and just get them interested and motivated. And teenagers aren’t the easiest patients to motivate. The ad showed a boy with acne being called Pizza Face by his peers.

In recognition of this alarming trend, CI noted in its award to Takeda, This case demonstrates the lengths to which some drug companies will go to increase sales of their products, how direct to consumer advertising can promote irrational drug use, and how weak regulation can foster irresponsible corporate behaviour.