Background Modifiable risk factors such as unhealthy diet, including excess sugar consumption, and physical inactivity are common causes of overweight and obesity, which are in turn risk factors for type-2 diabetes and other non-communicable diseases. Sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) have been identified as a key target for fiscal policy interventions designed to reduce sugar consumption, particularly in young people. Research shows that the media play a powerful role in forming public perceptions, and thus likely acceptance, of such public health policies. This study assessed how the UK print media presented the debate around the issue of sugar consumption, SSBs and the UK Government’s planned soft drinks industry levy.
Methods Quantitative and qualitative content analysis of articles regarding sugar, SSBs and taxation published in a diverse sample of 11 UK national newspapers from 1 April 2015–30 November 2016. Articles were identified by a systematic search of the Nexis database. A coding frame was piloted with a randomised 10% subsample, and revised to include additional emergent codes. Two researchers double-coded the 10% subsample to ensure consistency in the definition and application of codes. Cohen’s kappa coefficient was used to measure inter-rater agreement. All remaining articles were coded by one researcher. Qualitative data were analysed thematically, following the principle of constant comparison, with attention paid to contradictory data.
Results The database search returned 3127 articles, of which 1495 were manually excluded due to insufficient relevance, producing a final sample of 1632 relevant articles. None of the articles presented a positive slant on sugar or SSB consumption, whereas representations of SSB taxation were more heterogeneous. The debate initially framed high sugar consumption, particularly SSBs, as problematic, especially for young people. A high proportion of articles framed the problem as being driven by failures of industry, such as the formulation of “unhealthy” products and advertising and marketing aimed at young people. Discussion of potential solutions centred on the role of industrial responsibility, the need for government intervention to curb sugar consumption and the role that taxation could play.
Conclusion SSBs received substantial media attention in mainstream UK national newspapers during 2015 and 2016. Public health media advocacy was prominent throughout, with a growing consensus that SSBs are bad for health, government intervention is required and taxation may be an important policy measure. Our findings suggest that the reporting of the SSB policy debate may have helped shape the public health policy agenda on sugar consumption.
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