To combat obesity and diabetes, lawmakers in a number of U.S. cities have taxed sodas, sports drinks, and sweetened tea, and many are now considering health warning labels.
Growing evidence suggests that both strategies—taxes and warning labels—can reduce the purchase and consumption of sugary drinks, research supported by the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) shows.
Health-Warning Labels Influence What People Buy and Consume
Even brief exposure to health warnings on sugar-sweetened beverages reduces purchases of those beverages, providing evidence that such warnings can promote healthier drink choices, a new study demonstrates.1
A team of researchers from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (UNC)—including Anna Grummon, Lindsey Smith Taillie, Shelley Golden, Marissa Hall, and Noel Brewer—examined how health warnings influence what consumers actually buy in real settings. This randomized controlled trial assigned 400 consumers of sugary beverages to groups that saw either a health warning or a label that looked like a barcode.
“We worked in a convenience-store laboratory that allowed us to control whether the sugary drinks had warnings,” explains Grummon, now at Harvard University. “We are also one of the first studies to measure what consumers actually buy after seeing warnings, when they have their own money on the line.”
Participants who saw the health warning labels purchased about 22% fewer calories from sugary drinks compared with participants who saw a neutral label. The study also found that the warnings were influential across diverse groups: The effect of health warnings on beverage purchases did not differ by participants’ race/ethnicity, education, age, gender, sexual orientation, income, body weight, or health-literacy level.
According to Grummon, critics of health warning labels argue that consumers won’t notice or pay attention to the warnings. However, three-quarters of the participants in this study reported noticing the health warnings, and most of those participants also reported that they read and looked closely at the labels.
In another study, Grummon and Hall synthesized the findings of 23 studies and found that health warnings labels not only reduced purchases of sugary drinks but also caused stronger emotional responses, increased perceptions that sugary drinks contribute to disease, and reduced intentions to purchase or consume sugary drinks.2 All these responses are key indicators when it comes to long-term behavior change, they note.
“Our findings suggest that sugary drink warnings help consumers better understand products’ healthfulness and encourage them to make healthier choices about what drinks to buy,” says Grummon.
In a related mathematical simulation, UNC researchers show that a national policy requiring health labels on sugar-sweetened beverages could reduce obesity prevalence by about 3.1 percentage points over five years, if sustained.3
“While three percentage points might sound modest, on a national scale it equates to more than five million fewer people with obesity,” says Grummon. “Warnings are a highly scalable strategy for helping consumers make healthier choices. These findings suggest that warnings are also promising for addressing obesity in the U.S.”
Improved Child Health Projected in Wake of Mexico’s Soda Tax
The Mexican government enacted the first national tax on sugar-sweetened beverages after a 2012 study indicated that more than 70% of the country’s population was overweight or obese, and that in excess of 70% of the added sugar calories in the Mexican diet were coming from sugary drinks.
In the two-year period spanning 2014 to 2015, a research team that included Barry M. Popkin and Shu Wen Ng of UNC found that:
- The one-peso-per-liter excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in Mexico resulted in a 6% reduction in purchases of taxed beverages during the first year and continued to decline, with a 10% decrease in purchases in the second year.
- During the same study period, purchases of untaxed beverages such as bottled water increased 2.1%.
- Residents of households with lower socioeconomic levels, for whom health care costs are most burdensome, reduced their purchases of sweetened beverages the most.4
The findings run counter to initial reports from the sugar-sweetened soda industry, which said that the purchases of sugary drinks actually went up after the initial tax year. However, the researchers found those reports did not account for numerous significant factors, including inflation and shifts in population.
In addition, a new analysis co-authored by Popkin estimates that Mexico’s sugar-sweetened beverage tax could result in meaningful weight control and life-long health benefits for the country’s children and adolescents, particularly those who had been high consumers of the beverages before the tax.5 Childhood obesity is a strong predictor for obesity later in life, which can also lead to chronic illnesses such as diabetes, hypertension, and heart disease, the researchers emphasize.
To estimate the one-year effect of the tax on the body weight of children ages 5 to 17, by taking into account patterns of childhood growth and obesity in Mexico and assuming that the known reductions in sugar-sweetened beverage purchases would reflect changes in consumption.
Findings show that one year after the implementation of the current tax, children and adolescents should experience an average reduction in body weight of 0.26 and 0.61 kg (one kilogram equals about 2.2 pounds). For those who had been high consumers of sugary drinks, the team estimates the positive impact on body weight would be even greater, with an average body weight reduction of 0.50 kg for children and 0.87 kg for adolescents. Sustained over several years, such weight loss could mean some children and adolescents would not longer be considered obsese.
“Taxation represents one of the most effective ways to reduce consumption of unhealthy sugar-sweetened beverages, which can make a meaningful impact on future excessive weight gain and significantly reduce the long-term risks of becoming obese,” says Popkin. “If the taxation revenue is used to support child and adolescent healthy eating, then the benefits of such taxes are enhanced.”
Public Support Is Key to Policies Limiting Sugary Beverages
For taxes on sugary beverages to become a widely used strategy for improving public health, public support and acceptance are key.
Public opinion on the policies’ unintended consequences may affect attitudes toward the policy, argue Melissa Knox, Jessica Jones-Smith, and Vanessa Oddo of the University of Washington, who analyzed perceptions of the effects of Seattle’s 2017 sugary beverage tax.6
“We find that a majority of participants (59%) support the sugary beverage tax in Seattle and correspondingly, most people believed that the tax will positively impact health, and will not negatively affect general and personal economics in Seattle,” they report. “However, lower-income, versus higher-income, respondents were more concerned about the possible negative economic consequences of the tax,” such as job loss or increased financial costs for their family and friends.
A related study shows that attitudes toward sugary beverage taxes may be difficult to accurately estimate in phone surveys.7 Phone respondents (but not web respondents) under-report their sugary beverage consumption by about 25% and over-report positive attitudes toward the tax by about 11%, the researchers determined. These differing results likely reflect respondents’ answering interviewers’ questions in ways they believe are more socially desirable or acceptable rather than choosing responses that reflect their true thoughts or feelings, a tendency known as social desirability bias.
The researchers offer advice to lawmakers implementing soda taxes.
- Policymakers “should be wary of solely relying on self-reported measures of intake when evaluating the effectiveness of these policies,” they write, noting that consumers may consume more sweetened beverages than they report.
- Lawmakers should strengthen “their public messaging regarding the health and economic benefits of sweetened beverage taxes, even if they believe that attitudes are generally positive. Without a pro-tax messaging campaign that informs the public about the positive health and economic effects of these taxes, the taxes may eventually lose public support.”
The researchers point out that “recent successful efforts to block U.S. municipalities from enacting future beverage taxes by banning the taxes at the state level have relied heavily on informational campaigns that focused on the negative economic effects of the taxes. These campaigns, often funded by the beverage industry, may ultimately shift social norms in the direction of more favorable attitudes toward sweetened beverages, with unpredictable effects on public health.”
This article was produced under a grant from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD). The Communications and Marketing team at the Gillings School of Global Public Health at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill contributed to this article. The work of researchers from the following NICHD-funded Population Dynamics Research Centers was highlighted: University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill (P2CHD050924) and University of Washington (5P2CHD042828-18).