Sugary Drink Warning Labels Shown to be Effective in Changing Teenagers’ Unhealthy Habits

  • Posted on: Sep 8 2016

DAVIS, CALIFORNIA

Adolescents who see warnings for sugary drinks—like those to be required
on ads in San Francisco and proposed in California and New York on labels—are significantly less likely to choose
sodas, sports drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages, according to a study from the University of
Pennsylvania published today in the “American Journal of Preventive Medicine.”

“This study builds upon prior findings that sugary drink warning labels will work as intended and shows a
significant impact on soda’s prime consumer base: teenagers,” says Dr. Harold Goldstein, executive director of
Public Health Advocates. “Overwhelmingly, teens reported that the warning labels succeeded in convincing
them that sugar-sweetened beverages are unhealthy when compared to other products.”

That’s good news for policymakers and health advocates around the nation who are considering
warning labels as a means of reducing sugary beverage consumption, which scientific evidence identifies as a
leading and direct contributor to type 2 diabetes, obesity and tooth decay.

Large, Robust Study Surveys 2,000+ Teenagers

The study’s authors recruited 2,202 diverse adolescents aged 12-18 years old to participate in an online
shopping experience. The researchers then assigned the teenagers to one of three groups: a control group for
whom sweetened beverages displayed no special label; a second group for which sweetened beverages
displayed the American Beverage Association’s voluntary “Clear on Calories” label of calories per bottle or can;
or a third group, in which sweetened beverages displayed various warning labels. They were then asked to select
one beverage from a simulated vending machine containing a variety of drinks, sweetened and unsweetened.

The warning labels were found to be nearly three times more effective in convincing teens to select a
healthier beverage as the “Clear on Calories” label. Compared to the control group, the warning labels reduced
the number of teens who chose a sugary drink by an average of 17 percent, versus a decline of just 6 percent for
the industry’s current calorie label.

Overwhelming Support for Warning Label

After completing the purchasing simulation, the teenagers were asked about their beliefs regarding
sugary drinks. 63 percent of all participants stated that they would support legislation requiring a warning label
on sugary drinks. Only 8 percent opposed the policy. Overall, most participants reported that a warning label 
would change their beliefs about a beverage’s healthfulness and would encourage them to purchase fewer
sugar-sweetened beverages in the future.

“This study confirms that warning labels provide consumers with the scientific information they need to
make informed purchasing decisions,” says Dr. Harold Goldstein, executive director of Public Health Advocates.
“If we don’t make this information available, many teenagers will continue to unknowingly buy products that are
contributors to type 2 diabetes, obesity, tooth decay and other harmful chronic diseases. The beverage
industry’s voluntary labels may be clear about calorie content, but they say nothing about the specific dangers
of beverages like sodas, sweet teas, and sports, energy and fruit drinks.”

“The Influence of Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Warnings: A Randomized Trial of Adolescents’ Choices and
Beliefs” was published online today in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The study was funded by
the Healthy Eating Research Program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. It comes on the heels of another
study which showed that the city of Berkeley’s soda tax successfully reduced sugary drink consumption by 21
percent in low-income neighborhoods.