By Mychelle Farmer, Chair of NCD Child, and Johanna Ralston, CEO of the World Obesity Federation
As Megan Rapinoe and the U.S. women’s national team celebrate their explosive World Cup victory, she and her teammates have fuelled a global rallying cry for gender equality on and off the soccer pitch. While Rapinoe and 27 other players have filed a lawsuit against U.S. Soccer to fight for equal pay and treatment, one unfortunate similarity between the men’s and women’s competitions is their joint promotion of unhealthy food and drinks.
Coca-Cola first sponsored the FIFA Men’s World Cup in 1978 and was an official partner at last year’s tournament, alongside sponsors Budweiser and McDonald’s. The FIFA Women’s World Cup this year also has Coca-Cola at the top of its partners roster. U.S. Soccer has Coca-Cola and Budweiser as official sponsors as well.
Taking the place of the tobacco industry, which FIFA banned from advertising starting in 1986, junk food giants like Coca-Cola are dominating sponsorships of top sporting competitions worldwide. As the sports world becomes more inclusive of women, the U.S. team and FIFA continue to ignore the effects of their sponsors on the global obesity crisis, which is driving a rise in heart disease, cancer and diabetes.
Obesity has tripled worldwide since 1975 in large part because people are increasingly leading sedentary lifestyles and consuming food and drinks high in sugar, salt and fat. Today, across the world, over 1.9 billion adults and 380 million children are obese or overweight. In the U.S., 40 percent of adults and 20 percent of children are obese.
Childhood obesity is growing at an alarming rate, in part due to digital marketing of junk foods, which threatens children’s wellbeing, according to the World Health Organization. Many overweight and obese children become overweight and obese adults, developing additional debilitating conditions — cardiovascular disease, diabetes and multiple cancers, which collectively are leading causes of death globally. As the obesity epidemic grows, it strains already overburdened health systems across the world.
Despite this burden, processed food companies continue to penetrate deeper into ‘new markets’, “making up for declining profits [in wealthier nations] by investing heavily in low- and middle-income countries,” according to the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
Using heavy advertising, companies are upending local diets and environments, while arguing their products are critical to alleviating hunger.
These companies also use their deep pockets to fund dubious research arguing that physical exercise is more important than diet. Researchers found that in funding studies, Coca-Cola maintained control over the review process, study data, funding transparency and more. In China, Coca-Cola, Nestle, McDonald’s and PepsiCo teamed up to fund an institute to shift the government’s focus from healthy food to exercise.
Meanwhile, Coca-Cola recently highlighted its goal “to empower women across the globe” while unveiling “#TeamCocaCola”, six top women soccer players donning the company’s red jackets, berets and flags.
In fact, Coca-Cola’s products and practices disempower women and girls, limiting their chances to have healthy, fulfilling lives. Disproportionally affected by obesity and overweight, more than 21 percent of women will be obese by 2025, compared to 18 percent of men. American women are also more vulnerable because of limited access to healthy food and regular physical activity, and Black and Hispanic women are at double the risk.
Considering rising obesity and the power of junk food companies, arguing against sponsorships may seem like a losing game. But we have stopped unhealthy advertising in sports before. After widespread pressure on the sports industry to reject the tobacco industry’s influence, FIFA banned advertising of tobacco products in 1986 and the Olympic games followed suit in 1988.
Smoking still causes nearly one in five deaths in the U.S. and one in seven deaths in the 2019 FIFA Women’s World Cup host country France. Similarly, obesity causes at least four million deaths annually, with one in five Americans dying from it.
For decades, the sports industry’s refusal to face the facts on tobacco hurt global progress against smoking. They now seem unable to face the dramatic death toll of obesity and overweight. As they wait to apply these lessons to the junk food industry, FIFA and U.S. Soccer continue to do a disservice to women and young people worldwide.
Similarly, efforts to reduce obesity in hard-hit communities can also be modeled off tobacco policies. Eight cities across the U.S. and over 40 countries around the world have embraced soda taxes. Berkeley saw a more than 50 percent drop in soda consumption three years after the city’s tax began. Researchers highlight that cigarette taxes have helped to reduce smoking across the U.S. soda taxes might just do the same to lower obesity and overweight rates worldwide.
Bans on sponsorships from the tobacco industry have been in place for over thirty years, protecting millions of young people from exposure to harmful advertising. It’s been done before and can be done again.
While soccer fans across the world are awed by the U.S. women’s team’s historic victory and its players’ activism on equal pay, its sponsors and their disingenuous claims of “empowering women globally” are being normalized. It’s high time U.S. Soccer and FIFA put their money where their mouth is to stop giving a platform to companies like Coca-Cola, which harm women and are a key driver of the exponential rise in obesity and overweight worldwide.
Dr. Mychelle Farmer is the Chair of NCD Child, the Chief Medical Officer for Advancing Synergy and the former Senior Non-Communicable Disease Advisor for Jhpiego.
Johanna Ralston is the CEO of the World Obesity Federation, former Vice Chair of NCD Alliance and a fellow at the Geneva Centre for Security Policy.