Travel through rural Pakistan and two things will strike you. One is heart rending poverty and the other is hospitality. Visitors are greeted with warmth and selfless generosity. The poorest of the poor will immediately call for ‘paani’ for their visitors. Paani means water in Urdu, but in the local lexicon it has come to mean a bottled fizzy drink. And ‘paani’ brooks no refusal. Visitors can demur all they want but the host is not deterred.

“It’s only paani”, he says. “It can do no harm”.

But it can and it does. The impression amongst the general public that it does not, reflects an appalling failure of public policy. But, as always, finding the way out of a mess depends on discovering how one got there in the first place.

Clearly, the companies that market fizzy drinks have done a superb job. It is nothing less than a marketing triumph that a fizzy drink has become synonymous with water – the very essence of life.

But this does not mean that public policy makers in Pakistan should watch all this as silent spectators. The ruinous monetary impact on the poor is only the tip of the iceberg. Over the years a growing list of scientific studies has highlighted the health risks of fizzy drinks. The list of diseases associated even with modest consumption of fizzy drinks is long and growing: diabetes, heart disease, prostate cancer, metabolic syndrome (associated with diet drinks), and obesity. All of this can be verified easily with a few Google searches.

Researchers led by a group of scientists from Imperial College London recently completed the largest study ever to investigate the link between fizzy drink consumption and diabetes. The results published last April in a wide section of the press are shocking: consuming just one can of fizzy drink a day leads to a 22% increase in the chance of getting Type 2 diabetes.

Primarily, the task at hand is raising public awareness of the risk fizzy drinks pose. Public awareness campaigns need to start immediately. Television is the ideal medium. Its footprint now covers almost all of Pakistan. What’s more Pakistan Electronic Media Regulatory Authority (Pemra), the Pakistani media watch dog and licensing authority, has written into contracts with all TV channels that they must make available several minutes of broadcast time every hour at no cost for public service messages.

The task ahead is not simple.

The fizzy drink companies are rich, powerful and smart. Creative, gimmicky marketing using film, music and sportstars projects fizzy drinks as healthy, refreshing and fashionable. This is as far from the truth as it can be. And as new research pours in it is becoming clear that having a fizzy drink may well do just as much damage to one’s health as smoking a cigarette. Cigarette packets now carry a clear health warning. Is it not time that we compel the fizzy drink makers to do the same?

KOMAL KANZA,

Karachi, May 3.