Sunday, November 15, 2009

Sugar-Sweetened Beverages the Next Tobacco?

Image from the NY City Department of Health Anti-Obesity Campaign

In class this week, we discussed strategies for reducing the consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages at home. Sugar-sweetened beverages are exactly what they sound like: any drink sweetened with sugar (sodas, fruit juices, "vitamin" or flavored waters, sports drinks, energy drinks....etc.).

The larger question at hand was: Can we utilize the same strategies that brought down the tobacco industry for reducing the consumption and availability of sugary drinks?

The idea of a "soda tax" has come under scrutiny by conservatives who don't like the idea of taxing anything, as well as groups that are strongly supported (i.e. funded) by the food and beverage industry, like the Center for Consumer "Freedom." And, yes, the quotes are my doing...

However, many in public health believe that taxation will curb consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, particularly among those who consume the most and are most likely to suffer poor health and overweight because of it. Nonetheless, soda is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to liquid, non-nutritive calorie consumption, especially among kids. There are many other beverages that provide just as many calories and can contribute to weight gain. What will happen when the beverage industry just switches production (and all its marketing!) to these other sugary beverages? Another tax?

Taxation of tobacco has been a primary strategy in reducing its consumption and preventing people from starting to use it. Yet, taxation of tobacco has gone extremely high! Right now the federal tax on tobacco is $1.00 per 20-cigarette pack, and states can tax tobacco even higher ($3.46). Would a soda tax ever get that high? Not likely. Harvard researchers suggest that just a $0.01 per ounce of soda would be enough to change consumption patterns of consumers; a typical 20 oz. soda would be marked with a 20 cent tax.

However, the strategy that I am most excited about is social marketing -- advertising that promotes healthy behaviors and discourages unhealthy ones. If you haven't seen the sugar-sweetened beverage ads out of New York City, check out my other post on this topic. Marketing can't just tell you that something is bad, it must suggest alternatives.

If you are looking for alternatives to sugary drinks here are a couple promoted on the Harvard Nutrition Source website:
  • Plain (or Infused) Water -- I think this means throwing some lemons or cucumbers in with the plain water to add flavor without the calories.
  • Tea -- Go light on the sugar and honey, of course.
  • Coffee -- Choose milk over cream, go sugar-free.
  • Sparkling water -- add a splash of 100% fruit juice for flavor, without packing in the calories.
The website even has a recipe for a healthy "fresh fruit cooler," which is a great alternative to store-bought smoothies. Notice, drinks that are "sugar-free" because they utilize artificial sweeteners are NOT included in this list.

Right now there is a national movement to get junk foods and soft drinks out of schools. While I believe this needs to happen soon, most kids get unhealthy foods outside of schools. A 2006 study by Harvard researchers found that 60-80% of sugar-sweetened beverages were consumed by kids at home.

This suggests that we need a national movement, not just to change school environments to provide healthier beverages, like water and low-fat milk, but also change social norms around providing sugary drinks to kids in homes.

What would sway parents to pass up purchases in the beverage aisle and stick to **free** tap water and nutrient-rich milk for kids?

That's a tough question. The strategy needs to incorporate environmental change, excellent social marketing of the health dangers of daily consumption of sugary drinks, and grassroots/community efforts. If we can get sugar-sweetened beverages out of schools (where they have no right to be!), perhaps we can raise awareness about the issues so that we can get them out of homes, too!

Could the tobacco model work? Perhaps. It may be important to look to other public health campaigns; however, to get the most insight into what public health strategies will be most effective. How about alcohol control campaigns?

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