Getting Americans to drink less sugary sodas and other beverages is a top public-health policy. Study after study has linked the consumption of these beverages with poor health outcomes, especially obesity and type 2 diabetes.
And Americans consume an incredible amount of soda — an average of 44 gallons per person per year (and that doesn’t include sugary fruit or sports drinks).
Coming up with policies — politically feasible ones, that is — to help Americans shake off their sugary soda fix has been extremely difficult. The most notable failures have been the attempts to impose excise taxes on sodas or to restrict their serving size.
Still, there have been some success stories, mostly in regard to children. Many school districts have banned sugar-sweetened drinks from vending machines and the meals served in their schools’ cafeterias.
Lobbying by the beverage industry is a key reason, of course, for the fizzling of many soda-related policies. In the past five years, the American Beverage Association alone has spent more than $33 million on lobbying against such policies.
But public opinion is another factor. Yes, that opinion is often swayed by industry’s framing of the issue, but how individuals accept that framing seems to be determined by more personal factors, such as political leanings and educational levels.
A national sampling
For the study, Sarah Gollust, an assistant professor at the U’s School of Public Health, and her colleagues, Colleen Barry of Johns Hopkins University and Jeff Niederdeppe of Cornell University in New York, surveyed a national sampling of 1,319 adults, aged 18 to 64, in the fall of 2012.
“We wanted to know why the policy around sugary soda consumption is so politically charged,” said Gollust in a phone interview with MinnPost.
Among the questions asked of the participants was their support for six policy interventions. Not unsurprisingly, support was strongest for strategies that emphasize consumer choice and those involving children. It was weakest for ones that restrict the choices available to adults.
Here are those findings:
- 65 percent of the respondents supported (and 11.1 percent opposed) requiring large and prominently placed calorie labels on sugary drinks
- 61.5 percent supported (and 19 percent opposed) prohibiting schools from selling sugary drinks on school property
- 51 percent supported (and 23.5 percent opposed) requiring TV stations to provide free air time for public-service announcements on healthy eating and exercise equal to the time used for advertising sugary drinks
- 49.8 percent supported (and 26 percent opposed) prohibiting advertising of sugary drinks during TV program watched primarily by children
- 25.5 percent supported (and 52.8 percent opposed) prohibiting the sale of any sugary drink larger than 16 ounces
- 21.6 percent supported (and 58.4 percent opposed) requiring a penny-per-ounce tax on sugary drinks that would add 12 cents to the cost of a 22-ounce can of soda
A deeper data dive
Gollust and her colleagues weren’t all that surprised by these findings. “We had already known that the soda tax and size restrictions were pretty unpopular,” she said. “We had also hypothesized that when policies affect kids, people tend to be more supportive of the ‘nanny’ state.”
The surprises came when the researchers dove further into the data provided by the questionnaires to figure out what factors were determining the support — or lack of it — for the six policies.
They found that age, race, gender and income were not consistently related to support of the policies. Nor did being overweight or obese or being a parent of a child under the age of 18 predict an individual’s support.
Interestingly, though, younger respondents — those aged 18 to 29 — were 57 percent more likely to support a soda tax than the older respondents, women were 43 percent more likely than men to support restricting soda sizes, and individuals who were obese were 22 percent more likely than their non-obese peers to support equal time for healthy TV messages.
In addition, the data revealed that having a higher educational level (college or more) was strongly related to support of four of the six policies. (The exceptions were the portion-size restrictions and the equal-time public-service announcements.)
Politics and perceptions
The study revealed that only two variables consistently predicted whether or not someone would support all six policies: political party identification and favorable perceptions of soda companies.
Republicans supported all the policies much less than Democrats, and political independents also tended to have lower support for soda taxes and portion-size restrictions than Democrats.
Republicans were, for example, 75 percent less likely than Democrats to support government-imposed portion-size restrictions on soda and 79 percent less likely to support requiring TV stations to counter ads for sugary drinks with public service announcements on healthy eating.
But the biggest surprise in the data, said Gollust, was the relationship between people’s attitudes about soda companies and their support of strategies to reduce consumption of those companies’ sugary products.
“If you viewed the companies more favorably, you were less supportive of the policies,” she said.
That finding held no matter what the person’s political leanings.
The respondents who expressed a positive attitude about soda companies were 52 percent less likely to support a soda tax than those with a negative attitude, for example, and they were 31 percent less likely to support restrictions of ads for sodas during children’s TV shows.
A changing landscape?
Overall, the study’s findings suggest “that school-based policies and labeling are more politically feasible than restricting adults’ access or imposing taxes, reflecting public enthusiasm for regulation that maintains a value on consumer choice in the marketplace while tolerating more paternalism in restricting the choices available to children,” write Gollust and her colleagues.
Still, that attitudinal landscape may change. That’s the question most people don’t think about.
“While this study confirms the now-anticipated partisan polarization over obesity prevention approaches, attitudes toward beverage companies predict support above and beyond political factors,” the researchers add. “If attitudes toward companies are malleable, increased support for [sugary soda]-restricting policies could be feasible with strategic efforts to raise public awareness of soda company marketing tactics to children, produce manipulation, lobbying activities, and other actions that the public considers negative.”
As Gollust and her colleagues point out, “U.S. support for tobacco control policies grew as public understanding shifted from a dominant view of tobacco use as a free choice to the notion of tobacco as an addictive product aggressively marketed and manipulated by the tobacco industry.”
A similar shift in public attitudes toward soda companies may already be under way. Among the survey’s respondents, 30 percent said they had an overall favorable view of soda companies — but 31.2 percent said they had an unfavorable view.
Of course, that’s still a long way from the attitudes expressed in the survey toward cigarette companies: 6.4 percent favorable versus 72.8 percent unfavorable.
“I think it’s useful for the public to be a little more conscious about the norms around consumption of these beverages,” said Gollust. “It’s pretty ubiquitous. It’s become so common that the default beverage when we go out for a lunch is a Coke or a lemonade.”
But how did those sugary choices become the norm?
“Americans seem to object to government intervening on what is available to consume, but industry, companies and restaurants have already played with the architecture of what those choices are,” said Gollust.
You’ll find an abstract of the study online.