The 'Health Halo' of Sports Drinks

In the 1940s, the tobacco industry had a big problem on its hands. The first studies looking at the impact that cigarettes had on a smoker's health were being released, and things did not look good. So, in order to calm the fears, R.J. Reynolds Tobacco Company (makers of Camel brand cigarettes) sought help from those the public trusted most: doctors.

Ads began popping up featuring doctors relaxing after a long day's work with a cigarette on their lips, always with the caption "More Doctors Smoke Camels Than Any Other Cigarette." Looking back at the ads now with the advantage of hindsight, they seem to be coming from a work of satirical fiction. Which might be how folks from the future look at our ads for "sports drinks."

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A new study by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy has tried to examine the claims by ads promoting sports/energy drinks and their actual health effects. For example, ads for Gatorade G-2 Perform advise potential consumers they should use their product to "help rehydrate, replenish and refuel." However, as the report makes clear, sports drinks should be avoided because they contain so much added sugar they increase the risk of obesity and diabetes.

That's a big discrepancy between claims and fact.

This isn't anything new. Turn on any sports game, and Gatorade has huge bunches of ads showing athletes winding down with their sugar-infused product after a long day at the gym. The implication: Athletes are worried about their health, and they're drinking our product, so you can put to bed any worries you have.

In fact, even before the rise of the athlete spokesperson and televised games, Gatorade was pushing the idea that doctors recommend drinking their product. Take this ad from 1979:

This is what the authors of the study call the "health halo." Whereas sodas like Coke and Pepsi promote their products as more of a "life enhancement" (i.e., drink this and put a smile on your face), they do so without claiming any health benefits. Not so products like Monster and Red Bull, who claim drinking their product "improves performance especially during times of increased stress or strain."

Problem is, the negative effects energy drinks have on your body read like Happy Fun Ball's disclaimers:

These aren't the only two types of beverages under scrutiny by the study. Fruit drinks from V8 and SoBe, flavored waters like Vitamin Water, and sweetened teas and coffees all share the same traits. They are selling themselves as being "health and strength enhancing" while having the thumbs-up from the medical community, but in reality an argument can be made that they're actually more harmful than ordinary sodas.

So, what's the solution? While the study stops short of calling for a regulatory body to begin policing the advertisements, that act did happen in cigarette ad regulation.

In 1997, that same Camel brand from before was convinced by the FTC to end its campaign featuring cartoon character Joe Camel after anti-smoking groups provided compelling evidence it was used to lure kids to smoke. Maybe it's time to take a page from that book and put an end to athletes luring kids into drinking sugary beverages.

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