Slap cigarette-style warnings on sugary drinks, experts say

Would YOU buy a bottle of Coca Cola if it had images of rotten teeth plastered on it? Experts say slapping cigarette-style warnings on sugary drinks might help fight child obesity

  • Researchers showed parents images of sugary drinks with sugar warning labels 
  • The images included the amount of sugar in each drink or health notices
  • A tenth fewer parents bought the products when they included the message

Slapping graphic cigarette-style warnings on sugary drinks may help curb the child obesity epidemic.

A team of US researchers showed nearly 1,000 parents images of sugary drinks with labels that included written or picture notices about their health risks.

Images either depicted how much sugar was in each drink, such as in teaspoons, or the physical effects of consuming too much, such as tooth decay, weight gain and kidney disease.

The study, carried out in a virtual convenience store, asked parents to pick a drink for their child, giving them free scope to choose what they wanted.

Purchases of sugar-laden drinks were a tenth lower among parents who saw the sugar or tobacco-style warnings.

Respondents said they were put off because the notices worried and disgusted them.  


The researchers did not share graphic warnings they placed on sugary drinks but they included ‘sugar graphic warnings’ — cubes, teaspoons or packets of sugar to depict how much was contained within each beverage — and health graphic warnings’, such as images of feet on scales, decaying teeth or dialysis to show the possible risks of drinking too many sugary drinks. Pictured: images from an earlier study that called for labels highlighting the risks of consuming too much sugar

The amount of sugar a person should eat in a day depends on how old they are.

Children aged four to six years old should be limited to a maximum of 19g per day.

Seven to 10-year-olds should have no more than 24g, and children aged 11 and over should have 30g or less. 

Meanwhile the NHS recommends adults have no more than 30g of free sugars a day.

Popular snacks contain a surprising amount of sugar and even a single can of Coca Cola (35g of sugar) or one Mars bar (33g) contains more than the maximum amount of sugar a child should have over a whole day.  

A bowl of Frosties contains 24g of sugar, meaning a 10-year-old who has Frosties for breakfast has probably reached their limit for the day before they even leave the house.  

Children who eat too much sugar risk damaging their teeth, putting on fat and becoming overweight, and getting type 2 diabetes which increases the risk of heart disease and cancer.

Source: NHS 

It comes amid an obesity crisis in the UK, with four in 10 children and more than half of adults being overweight or obese. The rates in the US are nearly identical.

The researchers, led by Dr Aviva Ann Musicus at Harvard University, recruited 961 parents who had children aged between six and 11.

Parents were split into four groups, with different warnings visible on labels of the sugary drinks they say.

The first group, the control, saw an array of beverages with a standard calories label, similar to ones already used.

The second saw a written warning about the sugar content in each drink.

Drinks seen by the third cohort were branded with ‘sugar graphic warnings’ — cubes, teaspoons or packets of sugar to depict how much was contained within each beverage, along with written warnings.

The final participants were shown drinks that ‘health graphic warnings’.

These included pictures of feet on scales, decaying teeth or someone getting dialysis to show the possible risks of drinking too many sugary drinks. They also included text warnings.

The results, which will be presented at The Obesity Society’s annual meeting in San Diego, California next week, show that the picture warnings were most effective.

Some 13.4 per cent fewer parents bought a sugary drink for their child, compared to the control group, when the packaging showed the ‘sugar graphic warning’.

And there was a similar effect among those shown the ‘health graphic warning’, with 14.7 per cent fewer parents opting for high-sugar beverages.

Parents also rated their perceptions of different drinks and the labels. 

They reported being worried, scared, guilty and disgusted in response to the picture warnings — emotions which trigger behaviour change, according to the researchers.

And the volunteers’ estimates of the amount of sugar in each drink was more accurate when the labelling included the sugar graphic. They also felt more trusting of these label.

Parents also said they supported the images of how much sugar was in each drink more than the health graphic warnings.

Sonia Pombo, a nutritionist at Action on Sugar, told MailOnline: ‘Any measure that helps draw attention to the excessive levels of sugar in drinks has to be a good thing. 

‘This research supports existing evidence that labelling works in guiding consumers to make healthier more informed choices. 

‘What is key is its consistency – for full impact we need mandatory labelling across all food and drink products. 

‘In doing so this would force companies to show the true value of their product, and hopefully encourage them to reformulate.’ 

Consuming too much sugar can cause weight gain, which over time raises the risk of heart disease, some cancers and type 2 diabetes. It can also cause tooth decay.

Some US states and cities have brought in rules ordering drink makers to include warning labels on sugary drinks.

However, the UK has so far avoided similar ‘nanny state’ interventions, despite some experts calling for them to reduce sugary drink purchases. 

It comes as England is in the grips of an obesity crisis, with 36 per cent of adults overweight and 28 per cent being obese.

Meanwhile, 15 per cent of 10 and 11-year-olds are overweight, while a quarter are obese. Rates soared during the pandemic, with experts blaming a rise in junk food sales and lower levels of activity.

Campaigners have urged the Government to take action on the health crisis.

Calories added to menus of large businesses and banning junk food from being displayed at prominent store locations are steps already taken this year.

But ministers are now reviewing the rest of their anti-obesity strategy, which was expected to see junk food adverts banned before 9pm.

And they are even thought to be reviewing the sugar tax, which charges soft drink makers if their drinks are too sugar-laden, despite it being credited with causing Britons to consume less.

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