By Paul Kelso, Health Correspondent
Coca-Cola has been accused of undermining efforts to cut childhood obesity by targeting children in the poorest parts of the country with its Christmas truck promotional tour.
Health watchdog Public Health England (PHE) said the campaign, in which free drinks will be handed out from the distinctive red trucks at 42 locations across the country, is "the last thing children need".
The Coca-Cola trucks are modelled on the company's well-known Christmas television adverts and will visit cities and towns across the UK.
According to the company's website, visitors will be able to enjoy "a snowy winter wonderland setting while enjoying a choice of Coca-Cola Classic, Diet Coke or Coca-Cola Zero Sugar".
In a statement, PHE director Dr Alison Tedstone singled out the campaign, saying local authorities should consider whether to allow the trucks to operate.
She highlighted the link between obesity and deprivation and noted the Coca-Cola trucks will visit some of the poorest areas in the country.
"Among many others, Coca-Cola has announced the dates for its 2017 Christmas Truck tour, which will see its trucks roll into towns and cities up and down the UK, giving free drinks to families and young children," she said.
"We're encouraging local authorities to have conversations about how marketing campaigns like this involving free sugary drinks is compatible with bringing down concerning rates of obesity and dental decay in children.
"The link between childhood obesity and deprivation is well established and it's important to note the truck will be visiting some of our poorest areas.
"We know many local authorities are committed to improving the health of their children and many specifically to helping address childhood obesity. We are seeing positive action from schools, where healthy eating is embedded in everyday life, and there are local initiatives to encourage more physical activity, use of green spaces and healthy cooking and eating.
"To really help children and families embrace these positive lifestyles, we need consistent messaging that supports them to make healthier choices.
"Our environment is already driving us all to eat and drink too much. With our town centres already overcrowded with outlets promoting sugar and excess calories, this is the last thing children need."
Earlier this year the Government introduced a tax on drinks containing added sugar that is estimated to raise more than £500m in its first year, which will be used to fund school sport.
PHE is responsible for implementing the Government's anti-obesity strategy, and this year introduced new sugar reduction guidelines for confectionery, breakfast cereals and other foods.
"Government is committed to making the Soft Drinks Industry Levy and the sugar and calorie reduction programmes a success. In years to come, we are confident we will look back and see these as historic steps in reducing one of the biggest modern threats to our children's health," Dr Tedstone said.
"It is important that we address actions that could undermine this vital work, which is why we want to encourage debate and support local areas to make positive choices for the health of their children."
A spokesperson for Coca-Cola said: "The truck tour is a one off, annual event where we offer people a choice of 150ml samples of Coca-Cola Classic, Coca-Cola Zero Sugar or Diet Coke – so two of the three options are no sugar drinks.
"This is also reflected in the take-up of samples on the truck tour – with on average over 70% of what we sample being a zero sugar option."
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