A new Baltimore bill that would require health warnings on sweetened drinks hopes to signal that public health officials want to inform, rather than restrict consumer choice, and supporters say it's the type of strategy that might work.
Baltimore's proposal would require advertisements for sugary drinks or any business that sells sweetened beverages to post warnings that read: “Drinking beverages with added sugar contributes to tooth decay, obesity and diabetes. This message is from the Baltimore City Health Department.”
Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen said the bill stems from conversations with residents who worry about childhood obesity. Wen said 1 in 3 school-aged children in Baltimore are either overweight or obese, and 1 in 4 children drink one or more soft drinks a day.
“Parents are telling us that they are not aware of the dangers of these sugary drinks,” Wen said. “So what we're doing is, we're empowering consumers with that choice.”
Americans, on average, consume around 20 teaspoons of sugar a day, far above the daily maximum of 12 teaspoons recommended in the recently updated U.S. Dietary Guidelines. A 12-ounce can of soda may contain as many as 7.8 teaspoons of sugar.
From restricting the sales of convenience-store “Big Gulps” to taxes on soft drinks, such measures have yet to significantly affect the battle of the bulge. Strong lobbying efforts by the beverage industry, as well as a “you can't tell me what to do” consumer attitude have hindered efforts to reduce Americans' consumption of sugary beverages.
Jim O'Hara, director of health promotion policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest said the proposed Baltimore warning label is “very much within the broad tradition of public health risk communication.”
“It's sort of the public health community taking a page from the playbook of what happened with tobacco,” said Victoria Brown, senior program officer at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, referring to the campaign that helped lower smoking rates over the past 50 years. Brown said there's evidence that educating parents about the dangers of excessive sugary drink consumption could similarly improve dietary choices.
Results from a RWJF-funded study published Thursday in the journal Pediatrics found that 75% of parents surveyed support sugar-sweetened beverage warning labels. The number of parents who chose a sugar-sweetened beverage for their child after seeing such a warning label was 20 percentage points lower than among parents who did not see such labels.
Around 66% of U.S. children between the ages of 2 and 11 drink sugary beverages daily, which contributes to an average of 118 calories a day. African-American children between the ages of 2 and 5, according to the study, consumed almost twice as many calories from sugary drinks as white children in the same age group.
Increased awareness of the negative effects of sugary drinks is credited with an overall decline in soft drink sales over the past decade.
Still, Ellen Valentino, executive vice president of the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association, said obesity continues to be a serious problem. And it's not solely the fault of soft drinks.
“The direction that piece of legislation takes is heavy new mandates on businesses in Baltimore city,” Valentino said of the proposed legislation. “Warning labels that suggest beverages are unique drivers of complex conditions such as diabetes and obesity are inaccurate and misleading.”
Other cities have had varying levels of success implementing diet-related legislation. New York City's ban on oversized drinks was overturned. A San Francisco bill that was the model for Baltimore's proposal is facing legal challenges from the American Beverage Association. Congress tried last year to pass a tax on sugar and high-fructose corn syrup. That failed to advance.
The Baltimore bill still needs approval from the full city council.