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Two major medical groups call for policies to curb consumption of sugary drinks

The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association support taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages and limits on marketing to children.

sugary drinks
Studies have shown that the average U.S. child or teen gets 17 percent of their calories from added sugar — almost half of which comes from sugary drinks.
Photo by Arshad Pooloo on Unsplash

Calling the excess consumption of sugar — particularly from sugary drinks — a “grave health threat” to children, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association released a joint statement this week in support of taxes on sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages.

They endorsed additional public health measures aimed at reducing children’s consumption of sugary drinks as well, including limiting the marketing of such products to children and making water and milk the “default beverages” on children’s menus and in vending machines.

Hospitals should take the lead on discouraging the purchase of sugary drinks, the two medical groups emphasized.

All these policy changes should be accompanied by an educational campaign that explains to people exactly why sodas and other sugary drinks are so bad for them, the groups also said. And they urged governments to use the revenue generated by taxes on sugary beverages to support health-related community programs, such as improving school nutrition and helping low-income people buy healthful foods.

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“As a nation we have to say ‘no’ to the onslaught of marketing of sugary drinks to our children,” said Rachel K. Johnson, professor emeritus of nutrition at the University of Vermont and former chair of the AHA’s nutrition committee, in a released statement. “We know what works to protect kids’ health and it’s time we put effective policies in place that bring down rates of sugary drink consumption just like we’ve done with tobacco.”

A major factor in obesity epidemic

Added sugar is a main driver behind America’s obesity epidemic, including among its children and teenagers. And sugary drinks — which include regular soda, fruit drinks, sports and energy drinks, and sweetened coffees and teas — are the leading source of that added sugar.

Government guidelines recommend that young people under the age of 18 consume no more than 10 percent of their calories from added sugar. But studies have shown that the average U.S. child or teen gets 17 percent of their calories from added sugar — almost half of which comes from sugary drinks.

“For children, the biggest source of added sugars often is not what they eat, it’s what they drink,” said Dr. Natalie Muth, a California pediatrician and the lead author of the joint policy statement, in a press release. “On average, children are consuming over 30 gallons of sugary drinks every year. This is enough to fill a bathtub, and it doesn’t even include added sugars from food.”

“As a pediatrician, I am concerned that these sweetened drinks pose real — and preventable — risks to our children’s health, including tooth decay, diabetes, obesity and heart disease,” she added. “”We need broad public policy solutions to reduce children’s access to cheap sugary drinks.”

The policies work

As the joint statement by the two medical groups points out, taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages are effective. For example, a study published last year found that within a few months after Philadelphia imposed a 1.5-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in 2017, the residents of that city were about 40 percent less likely to purchase those drinks.

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And earlier this month, researchers reported that three years after Berkeley, California, levied a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, its residents had cut their consumption of those products in half.

Evidence suggests that reducing the marketing of sugary drinks to young people would also be effective.

Beverage companies aim their advertising at young people because it works. Research has shown that children and teens tend to consume the beverages they see in ads. Such ads also help build life-long brand loyalty — thus perpetuating the consumption of the unhealthful beverages into adulthood.

As the joint statement notes, advertising aimed at getting young people, particularly teenagers, to consume sugary drinks is going up, not down. In fact, during a single year — 2015 to 2016 — the exposure of children and teens to ads for carbonated beverages (including on social media) increased 19 percent and their exposure to ads for juice, fruit drinks and sports drinks jumped a whopping 38 percent.

African-American youth are disproportionately exposed to such advertising — a factor that may contribute to their higher rates of obesity, the joint statement points out.

A tobacco parallel

“Similar to tobacco companies, sugary drink manufacturers aim to appeal to children and adolescents by associating their product with celebrity, glamour, and coolness,” the authors of the joint statement write.

As they also note, policymakers successfully — and dramatically — reduced the rates of smoking in the U.S. by limiting such advertising, as well as by imposing heavy taxes and other regulations (such as banning cigarettes from vending machines).

Policymakers could have the same effect on the consumption of sugary drinks.

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“Communities have started tackling this problem with creative solutions, showing that we can work together to make healthy options more available and less expensive to buy,” said Muth.

“Every child deserves to grow up to be healthy,” she added. “That means we need to do more to promote healthy beverage options — like water and milk. If we can do this together, we’ll improve the long-term health of our nation’s children.”

FMI: The joint statement by the AHA and the APA was published in the April issue of the journal Pediatrics, where it can be read in full.