Study: Warning labels may steer teens away from sugary drinks

Warning labels on sugary drinks are a promising strategy to steer teenagers away from buying sugary drinks, new research shows. 

The study, published today in The American Journal of Preventive Medicine surveyed American teenagers and found they were less likely to select sugary drinks that bore labels warning that added sugar(s) can contribute to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay. 

University of Pennsylvania researchers Eric VanEpps and Christina Roberto found that:

  • While 77 percent chose a sugary beverage when no label was shown, 61-64 percent chose one when a label was displayed.
  • The warning labels contributed to the teenagers’ understanding of the negative health effects associated with regularly consuming sugary beverages.
  • 63 percent of the teenagers surveyed said they would support a warning label policy for sugary drinks. 

The researchers pointed out that while the safety warning labels appeared to lead some adolescents to purchase healthier beverages, the “calories per bottle” labels had no such impact. 

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As with any study, the strength of the conclusions is tempered by limitations of the methods used. Because the label was presented in a highly visible and enlarged format and participants were told that “drinks with a lot of added sugar have a safety warning label on them,” the effect size of the label may be overestimated relative to the effect that would be seen in the real world. The researchers noted that the survey decisions were hypothetical and may have been influenced because of the potential for over-reporting "good behavior".

Despite these limitations, this is the third study indicating that warning labels on sugary drinks can reduce the intention to purchase a sugary drink. The same researchers at UPenn’s Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics published another study earlier this year showing that parents were less likely to select sugary drinks for their kids when warning labels were present. The current study extends these findings by showing that warning labels also positively influence teenagers, who generally make their own purchase decisions.

This finding is consistent with a New Zealand study published last week in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity. Researchers found that plain packaging and warning labels (especially those with a graphic image of tooth decay) reduced youth preferences for purchasing sugary drinks. The consistency of these studies suggests that labels may indeed have a meaningful impact on decisions to purchase sugary drinks.

This body of research is all the more compelling when you consider the new guidelines from the American Heart Association recommending children 2-18 consume fewer than six teaspoons of added sugars per day. A 20-ounce bottle of Pepsi or Coke has 15 teaspoons. The typical American youth consumes more than three times that amount, putting them at risk for the very conditions listed on the researchers’ warning labels. 

This is why last year the San Francisco Board of Supervisors unanimously passed an ordinance requiring warning labels on publicly displayed advertising for sugary drinks. Big Soda’s lawsuit against it is awaiting trial. Meanwhile, Baltimore is considering a similar measure. As we wrote in testimony supporting that measure:

“The onslaught of industry advertising must be balanced with accurate information about the health effects of sugary drinks from trusted sources so consumers can make informed choices. Placing warning labels on sugary drink ads is one highly visible way to do so.”

For more information on warning labels visit out sugar reduction toolkit at: http://www.healthyfoodamerica.org/sugar_advocacy_toolkit


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