Taking the less-sugar message on the road

Whatever else you think about the momentous events of this month, the adoption of five new sugary drink taxes is a capstone to a year that has seen escalating interest in combatting sugar in order to bring down diabetes, heart disease and other impacts from a broken food system.

As a result of that interest, we find ourselves on the road a lot this fall. I recently talked to folks at the Southern Obesity Summit in Houston about how communities in the South and across the nation are developing strategies to reduce consumption of added sugar. Some of the most promising ones include warning labels and taxes on sugary drinks; limits on sugary products in health care, child care, and government settings and in restaurants; marketing and retailing reforms; and communication campaigns.

Details about these strategies and more can be found in our sugar advocacy toolkit.

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We also were in Denver for this year’s meeting of the American Public Health Association talking about sugar reduction strategies with some of the nation’s leading health experts. The APHA’s focus on health equity and ensuring the right to health is a key part of the work we do to bring sugar back to healthy levels. 

We had a full house for a roundtable discussion on the impact of sugary drink taxes, which included new evaluation and implementation findings from Berkeley and Mexico. We discussed the enormous amount of money that corporations like Coca Cola and Pepsi have poured into stopping such health-protecting measures. We also analyzed what’s at stake in terms of health care costs and rates of diabetes.

Other highlights from our colleagues at APHA included:

  • The Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity presented a new report on how marketing for baby and toddler food and drinks often contradicts the advice of health professionals. For example, experts do not recommend serving products with added sugar to children under two. Yet 50 percent of baby snack food and 83 percent of toddler snack products studied contain added sweeteners, Rudd’s research showed.
  • The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Genna Reed explained how US regulatory gaps allow hidden sugars to sneak into baby and toddler food, and what can be done to close these gaps and ensure a healthier next generation.
  • Steve Gortmaker of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health presented on how policy changes, including taxes on sugary drinks, could reduce both obesity prevalence and racial/ethnic disparities in childhood obesity. The Childhood Obesity Intervention Cost Effectiveness Study (CHOICES) microsimulation model results include cases of childhood obesity prevented, net costs of the intervention, and health care cost-savings. This provides a framework for community health planners and policymakers to identify cost-effective strategies to reduce overall obesity prevalence while promoting health equity.

“I think the bottom line here is that public health is a best buy,” CDC Director Tom Frieden told a conference general session. “You could save lives, you could save money, and if you don’t invest in it, you’re going to regret it.”

Indeed, the research shows that taxing sugary drinks will save lives, save money, and if we don’t succeed, we’re going to regret it. 


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