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Soft Drink Companies Copy Tobacco Playbook to Lure Young Users

Cigarette Giants Bought Food Companies, Used Cartoon Characters, Colors, Flavors to Boost Sales of Sweetened Beverages

By Suzanne Leigh | UCSF.edu | March 14, 2019

Tobacco conglomerates that used colors, flavors and marketing techniques to entice children as future smokers transferred these same strategies to sweetened beverages when they bought food and drinks companies starting in 1963, according to a study by researchers at UC San Francisco.

The study, which draws from a cache of previously secret documents from the tobacco industry that is part of the UCSF Industry Documents Library tracked the acquisition and subsequent marketing campaigns of sweetened drink brands by two leading tobacco companies: R.J. Reynolds and Philip Morris. It found that as tobacco was facing increased scrutiny from health authorities, its executives transferred the same products and tactics to peddle soft drinks. The study publishes March 14, 2019, in the BMJ.

“Executives in the two largest U.S.-based tobacco companies had developed colors and flavors as additives for cigarettes and used them to build major children’s beverage product lines, including Hawaiian Punch, Kool-Aid, Tang and Capri Sun,” said senior author Laura Schmidt, PhD, MSW, MPH, of the UCSF Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies. “Even after the tobacco companies sold these brands to food and beverage corporations, many of the product lines and marketing techniques designed to attract kids are still in use today.”

Fruit Juice, Sports Drinks Linked to Obesity, Metabolic Disease

American youth currently consume an average of 143 calories a day in sugary beverages, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. These calorie-dense drinks do not provide the satiety of foods and are associated with obesity and metabolic syndrome, a cluster of conditions that increase the risk for heart disease, stroke and Type 2 diabetes.

Sugary beverages include most fruit juices, sports and energy drinks, soda and other beverages sweetened with added sugars, including honey, fructose, glucose, sucrose, dextrose, corn sweetener, malt syrup, corn syrup, brown sugar and raw sugar.

The new papers, which are available in the UCSF Truth Tobacco Industry Documents Library, a subset of the UCSF Industry Documents Library, reveal connections between the tobacco and food industries. 

Tobacco giant R.J. Reynolds led the transition to sweetened beverages in 1963 when it purchased Hawaiian Punch from Pacific Hawaiian Products Company, according to the documents. The beverage previously had been promoted to adults as a cocktail mixer, but R.J. Reynolds sought to beef up the drink’s “Punchy” mascot – a counterpart to the “Joe Camel” cartoon character the company used to promote cigarettes – and featured it on toys, schoolbook covers, comics, tumblers, clothing and TV commercials. Punchy became the “best salesman the beverage ever had,” according to tobacco industry documents.

In the ’60s and ’70s, the company conducted taste tests with children and mothers to evaluate sweetness, colors and flavors for Hawaiian Punch product line extensions. The children’s preferences were prioritized, the authors noted.

By 1983, R.J. Reynolds introduced the nation’s first juice box, marketed as a “handy little carton that comes with its very own straw.” This innovation was largely responsible for a 34 percent jump in sales, according to industry documents.

Kool-Aid Joins Marlboro

Meanwhile, tobacco competitor Philip Morris had acquired Kool-Aid, via General Foods, in 1985. The company flipped its marketing audience from families to children, created its “Kool-Aid Man” mascot, and launched collaborations with branded toys, including Barbie and Hot Wheels. It also developed a children’s Kool-Aid loyalty program described as “our version of the Marlboro Country Store,” a cigarette incentives program. 

“The Wacky Wild Kool-Aid style campaign had tremendous reach and impact,” said first author Kim Nguyen, ScD, MPH, who is also with the UCSF Philip R. Lee Institute for Health Policy Studies. “Lots of kids in the ’80s dreamed of getting swag from the Wacky Warehouse. What is really ‘wacky’ is that the Kool-Aid kid program was modeled after a tobacco marketing strategy designed to build allegiance with smokers.”

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