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Why Big Tobacco is Responsible for Your Kid’s Obsession with Sugary Drinks

Joe Camel and the Kool-Aid Man have more in common than you might expect.

It’s no secret that for years Big Tobacco marketed their death sticks to kids. It was a winning strategy until an avalanche of lawsuits and legislation curtailed the practice. What’s less well known is that tobacco companies, in an effort to diversify their holdings, bought sugar-sweetened drink brands and applied their marketing prowess and flavor insights to get kids addicted to them.

We know this thanks to the Truth Tobacco Industry Documents, an extensive archive of internal tobacco company communications publicly available thanks to a settlement between tobacco companies and states who sued them to recoup healthcare costs associated with smoking.

In a study published in medical journal The BMJ, a team of researchers led by Kim H. Nguyen used the archive to “examine how tobacco companies applied their knowledge of flavours, colours, and child focused marketing to develop leading children’s sugar sweetened drink brands.”

Take Hawaiian Punch. As the New York Times reports, until 1963 it was sold in two flavors and marketed as a cocktail mixer for adults. That year, R.J. Reynolds bought the brand, expanded to 16 flavors, and rebranded it for kids, massively increasing its popularity.

The most visible evidence of this? Punchy, the brand mascot who continues to adorn bottles of Hawaiian Punch today long after Reynolds sold off the brand.

Tobacco companies were also able to apply their knowledge of artificial flavoring to their new acquisitions. The same cherry-flavored chemical parents might smoke in a cherry cigarette might also make its way to the sugary drinks their kids drank after school.

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Reynolds’s success with Hawaiian punch inspired Philip Morris to acquire Kool-Aid and change its marketing focus from moms on a budget to kids. The wall-busting Kool-Aid Man came out of this strategy, as did a loyalty program, Wacky Wild Prize Warehouse, modeled on the Marlboro Country Store. Both rewarded consumers who mailed in proofs of purchase with branded merchandise, providing an extra incentive to consume something that’s not at all healthy.

So the next time your kids pester you for a sugary drink, have a little sympathy. They’re just responding to some of the most effective advertising strategies ever devised. You can thank big tobacco for the tantrum that ensues when you give them a glass of water instead.