Waiting at Notre Dame

No More Free Refills in France

The French say “non.” No more free refills. As of last Friday, selling unlimited servings of sugary soft drinks for a fixed price is illegal in France. This move continues a steady path of measures intended to curb the rise of obesity there.

In 2004, France banned vending machines from schools. In 2011, school cafeterias were told to stop serving french fries more than once a week. A soda tax came next in 2012.

Obesity rates in France – 15% – are well below the 37% rate that prevails in the U.S. They’re slightly below the European average of 16%. Italy (11%) and Romania (8%) have the lowest rates in Europe.

The French soda tax implemented in 2012 has yet to stop the rise in obesity prevalence there. On the whole, this ban on free refills for sugary drinks seems more sensible. The notion that sugar is “pure, white and deadly” is a bit of overblown hyperbole. Sugar always has, and alway will be part of our diets. It’s the sugar in breast milk that appeals to us as infants.

But the excess of sugar in our diets, which peaked sometime around the turn of the millennium, is a problem that’s tough to dispute. Along with sugary drinks, desserts and snacks contribute much of the excess of sugar in our diets. Many foods with healthy halos – like yogurt and energy bars – add to the overload.

The beverage industry helped to make this happen by putting their sugary drinks everywhere. Scientists call it food cues. Marketers call it merchandising. The industry made it worse with innovations like free refills, Big Gulps, and two-liter bottles.

So banning free refills is not such a bad idea. An even better idea is enlisting the industry in efforts to bring down the consumption of sugar in their products. The Alliance for a Healthier Generation is working through an ongoing commitment from Pepsi, Coke, and Dr Pepper Snapple to cut beverage calories in the American food supply.

Litigation and public pressure might nudge these beverage companies to change their ways. But real progress will come when their marketing efforts are fully focused on selling a more healthful portfolio of products.

Click here for more from the New York Times and here for more from the BBC.

Waiting at Notre Dame, photograph © David Kosmos Smith / flickr

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January 30, 2017

2 Responses to “No More Free Refills in France”

  1. January 30, 2017 at 9:07 am, Al Lewis said:

    once again, congratulations on a thoughtful and nuanced post about an interesting subject.

    This step can’t hurt. Like with everything else, the lower the price, the more gets consumed. And, yes, France’s soda tax didn’t reduce obesity but we don’t know that the rate wouldn’t have risen faster absent the tax. And the tax did raise money that presumably went for something useful.

  2. January 30, 2017 at 12:50 pm, Allen Browne said:

    I wonder if there is a counterproductive nature to soda taxes and no free refills. It seem punitive to those with obesity and insulting to those who are trying to eat and drink healthy. And the data would suggest big gains – decreases in SSB intake – in the U.S. without any taxes or bans. Perhaps we can put our energies in more productive areas. But, as noted above, the money raised is useful – when well spent.