Taxes on sugar-laden soft drinks have been effective so far.
Now, two groups of medical professionals are looking at vending machines, menus, and advertisements as new ways to reduce children’s consumption of sugary beverages.
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) together with the American Heart Association (AHA) issued a joint policy statement this week, endorsing a series of public health measures aimed at popular drinks such as sodas and fruit juices.
“We know that excess sugar intake is associated with serious diseases, including heart disease, type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, tooth decay, and childhood obesity. The dietary guidelines recommend kids get less than 10 percent of total calories from added sugars, but most kids get nearly double that,” Dr. Natalie Muth, a pediatrician in San Diego County and lead author of the policy statement, told Healthline.
Muth noted that more than half of that intake is from sugary drinks.
“Considering a 20-ounce bottle of soda has 65 grams of added sugar and it is recommended that children consume less than 25 grams of added sugar per day, it is not surprise that sugary drinks are such a huge contributor to sugar in a child’s diet. The soda is only an example. Sugary drinks also include sports drinks, fruit drinks, lemonade, sweet tea, and other beverages that contain added sugars,” she said.
Children and adolescents in the United States consume 17 percent of their calories in added sugars, which are placed into foods or beverages during the manufacturing process or at the table.
These sugars include glucose, high-fructose corn syrup, sucrose, and refined fruit juice.
As part of their campaign, the AHA and AAP called for changes to children’s menus and vending machines, with healthy drinks such as water and milk being default options.
Lauri Wright, PhD, an assistant professor in public health at the University of South Florida, told Healthline such changes would be a positive step.
“First, it increases access to healthier foods. Second, it is a way of educating children on nutritious choices,” Wright said. “We wouldn’t even consider giving children access to other unhealthy choices such as cigarettes or alcohol. Why is an unhealthy beverage choice even an option?”
“Ideally, menu choices should promote nutrient-rich options such as milk or water. This may actually be of double benefit because providing milk might give low-income children access that they might not have at home,” she added.
Beverage companies have been taking note of the changing conversation around what Americans drink. Coca Cola is introducing three new sparkling water options by summer.
“It is a step in the right direction and likely a response to the worldwide movement to raise awareness of the health hazards of sugary drinks,” said Dr. John Maa, a member of the San Francisco Sugary Drinks Distributor Tax Advisory Committee and a member of the board of directors at the American Heart Association.
“The American Beverage Association recently created a new partnership between Pepsi, Coca-Cola, and Dr. Pepper titled ‘Balance-US’ to reduce beverage calories in the American diet, and I believe this is in response to the efforts to tax sugary drinks,” Maa told Healthline.
The policy statement also calls for limits to advertising sugary drinks to children and teens.
Nielsen data shows that children’s exposure to advertisements for soda increased by 19 percent, and their exposure to ads for juice, sport drinks, or fruit drinks increased by 38 percent from 2015 to 2016.
The authors argue that drink manufacturers, like tobacco companies, try to appeal to their audience through celebrity or the idea of being “cool.”
Dana Hunnes, PhD, a senior dietitian at the University of California, Los Angeles, says clever advertising is part of the reason people are unaware of the negative health impacts of sugary drinks.
“The beverage industry has done such an amazing job over the years of advertising their products in such a way, using images of sports idols, Olympic athletes, singers, and other celebrities who are thin and svelte, that the disconnect, the cognitive dissonance is established,” Hunnes told Healthline. “It is too easy to believe you can drink these sodas and look like and be like these celebrities.”
The medical groups are also re-emphasizing their support for taxes on sugary drinks.
Muth says that of all policy options, a tax on sugary drinks has been shown to be the most effective.
“Evidence and precedent is strongest for excise taxes. Research has shown that a tax reduces sugary drink consumption,” she said.
Berkeley, California, was the first U.S. city with such a tax. Muth said sales of sugary drinks fell nearly 10 percent after the tax was implemented while milk and water increased nearly 4 percent.
“Studies show that a sugary drink tax would be the most effective strategy to lower rates of childhood obesity. If implemented at a national level, it would prevent over a half a million cases of childhood obesity and save 31 dollars per dollar spent over 10 years,” she said.
Taxing sugary drinks is not without its controversy.
Some argue that such tax measures are regressive because those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds are more greatly impacted by the increase in price.
Maa says that as the public becomes aware of the health benefits in limiting consumption of sugary drinks, support for a tax will likely increase.
“The value of taxing soda becomes clearer as one studies the major strides made over the decades in reducing smoking rates in America through tobacco taxes, and also is made aware of the large amount of sugar dissolved within sugary drinks,” Maa told Healthline. “I believe that as the general public becomes aware of the health benefits of soda taxation and the resulting improvements to their children’s future and the community, that support increases dramatically.”
Muth is aware that she and other public health advocates are up against companies that invest significant funds to encourage people to continue drinking sugary drinks, but she says it’s time to take action.
“The beverage industry spends enormous amounts of money to influence public opinion about sugary drink taxes, but when it comes down to it, sugary drinks provide no nutritional benefit and contribute to serious health harms, particularly in children and adolescents. Policy efforts are necessary to protect children from these health harms,” she said.