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Adding Tax to Sugary Drinks Could Lower Consumption, Study Suggests

beverages in a case
Changing the amount of sugar we drink could have health benefits.

 

Justin Sullivan Staff / Getty Images

Key Takeaways

  • Adding warning labels and taxes to sodas and other sugary beverages could discourage soda consumption, a new study suggests.
  • Previous research shows drink taxes do have an effect on lowering sales of these beverages.
  • Sugary drinks often make it difficult for people to know how many calories, and how much sugar, they're actually consuming, many nutritionists warn.

Just like adding calorie counts to menus may have major health benefits by encouraging consumers to make healthier choices, putting a significant tax on sodas and other sugar-laden beverages and including warning labels could shift consumption habits as well, recent research suggests.

An analysis of 23 studies on warning labels, presented at a virtual meeting of the American Society for Nutrition, found that warning labels led to notable reductions in sugary drink purchases. The study's lead author, Anna Grummon, Ph.D. at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, said the labels are useful for informing consumers, which often leads to reduced consumption of beverages like sodas, energy drinks, and fruit-flavored drinks.

A mockup of a proposed warning looked like the type you'd see on a product with a potential hazard: A large yellow triangle with an exclamation mark in the center is on one side, and on the other is, "STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) may contribute to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay."

Grummon said in her presentation that skeptics thought such warnings wouldn't have much effect, but that their research shows consumers do veer away when they see language like that, especially when accompanied by the hazard icon.

The Problem With Sugary Beverages

Any food that has carbohydrates has naturally occurring sugar, including fruits, vegetables, grains, and dairy. This type of sugar is the primary fuel source for the body, says functional medicine dietitian Maria Zamarripa, RD, who does nutrition education and counseling.

It's the category of "added sugar" that becomes problematic, and it can be used in products from salad dressing to instant oatmeal to protein powder. That means it can add up quickly, and high consumption levels on a consistent basis are what's been linked to health issues.

For example, a study in JAMA Internal Medicine found that people who consumed more sugar—about 20% of their calories—had a higher risk of dying from cardiovascular disease than those with sugar consumption at 8% of their calories. Those researchers hypothesize the connection comes from the way added sugar creates more inflammation in the body.

Another recent study, in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, noted that in addition to fat around the heart as an issue, excess sugar also increases abdominal fat, which can raise risk of diabetes among other health problems.

Maria Zamarripa, RD

For many people, they may be eating much more sugar than they think. People don't tend to stop and add up these numbers unless they're doing some kind of daily food tracking. So, if they're not having obviously sugar-filled foods like cakes or cookies, they may think they're not getting much added sugar when the opposite might be true.

— Maria Zamarripa, RD

That can be especially true with sugar-sweetened beverages that could have multiple types of sugar, she adds.

Why Taxes May Work

In addition to health warnings, taxing this type of beverage has also been explored, and sometimes implemented, in several states, including:

  • California
  • Pennsylvania
  • Colorado
  • Illinois
  • Oregon
  • Washington

These taxes aren't statewide, but rather, encompass just one city, such as Boulder or Portland.

The idea is not new, nor is it only the U.S.—other countries have been introducing soda taxes for the past decade, mainly as a way to curb type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Paying a few cents more for a sugar-laden beverage probably won't cause most consumers to raise an eyebrow, but when a tax is significant enough to make them think twice about buying, that's when change can happen, believes Christina Roberto, PhD, assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania.

She and her colleagues found that after Philadelphia put a tax in place in 2017 on sweetened beverages, there was a 38% drop in sales. Other studies have shown similar results; research on taxes in other countries found that consumers tend to substitute bottled water and milk for soda when taxes are imposed, particularly in lower-income areas.

Does that translate to better health through less obesity and lower heart disease and diabetes risks? That’s the idea, and although Roberto says it will take time to see whether those assumptions are correct, it's worth the effort. She adds that warning labels could have a similar effect, mimicking what's used on tobacco packages.

"This is something that affects everyone, even if they don't consume these beverages, because we're dealing with massive healthcare costs from these issues, and taxpayers fund part of that," she notes.

"Taxation is just one policy idea that needs to play out to see if it'll work. But the benefit is that we can watch this on a city and state level and look at the healthcare costs to see if there's a change based on lower beverage sales due to higher taxes."

What This Means For You

Like any kind of sugary treat, soda and other sweetened drinks can have a place in a healthy diet, many nutritionists have noted, but the key is moderation and occasional indulgence rather than an everyday habit that can sabotage healthy eating efforts.

"Creating awareness around what you're eating and drinking is always good," says Zamarripa. "That helps create a healthy relationship with food when you feel healthy and strong from what you're eating."

Taxes on sugary beverages are meant to be a way to build that awareness, adds Roberto, both on a personal and a community level. Although it will take time to understand whether it has an effect on public health, it certainly may help those looking to curb their sugar intake

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