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Don’t tax my soda! Study shows consumers put choice first

By Maggie Hennessy , 31-Mar-2014

"These findings reflect public enthusiasm for regulation that maintains a value on consumer choice in the marketplace rather than government intervention, while tolerating more paternalism in restricting the choices available to children," said the study's lead author Sarah Gollust.

First Lady Michelle Obama has called it “liquid sugar” and the World Health Organization warns that much of our sugar intake is “hidden” in processed food and beverages such as soda (a 12-ounce can contains 10 teaspoons). As public health officials continue to target consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages as a contributing factor to the obesity epidemic, policymakers have attempted to restrict consumption through a series of (unsuccessful) SSB excise tax proposals. 

But a survey published this month in the journal Preventive Medicine found that those hoping to use policy to reduce US consumers’ taste for soda and other sugary beverages should stick to school lunchrooms rather than legislative chambers. Indeed, just 22% of the 1,319 consumers surveyed in the fall of 2012 said they support a soda tax, and 26% supported portion size restrictions.

The first-of-its-kind study used an online survey to assess public support for multiple policies to promote public health and prevent obesity through the reduced consumption of SSB. Adding front-of-package nutrition labels and removing sugary beverages from school environments proved to be much more popular with respondents, with 65% and 62%, respectively, in favor of those initiatives. Policies restricting SSB marketing on children’s programming and promoting more healthy PSAs similarly received moderately high support.  

Consumers put choice first

"I think these findings reflect public enthusiasm for regulation that maintains a value on consumer choice in the marketplace rather than government intervention, while tolerating more paternalism in restricting the choices available to children," said lead author Sarah Gollust, assistant professor in the Division of Health Policy and Management at the University of Minnesota School of Public Health.

Indeed, while it is challenging to directly compare the relative effectiveness of each approach at reducing SSB consumption, as the authors noted, the policies relying most heavily on government interventions into the marketplace—by increasing prices or restricting portion sizes, both of which have empirical support of effectiveness—are the least popular.

"Strategies to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages are a key component of public health promotion and obesity prevention, yet the introduction of many of these policies has been met with political controversy," they wrote in the study. "The results provide policymakers and advocates with insights about the political feasibility of policy approaches to address the prevalent consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages."

Sugar reduction advocates can learn from anti-tobacco campaigns

Advocates of reduced sugar consumption may also want to borrow a page from the tobacco opponents' playbook, noted Niederdeppe, who has done research into the effectiveness of large-scale anti-tobacco media campaigns.

"Increasingly, health advocacy groups have focused attention on the behavior of the beverage industry, highlighting their marketing tactics aimed at young people and their heavily-funded efforts to oppose regulation,” he said. “And similarly to the patterns we've seen over the years with big tobacco companies, people with negative views of soda companies are in favor of stricter regulations on their products. Unlike many other health issues like alcohol and tobacco, parents have not yet been mobilized to advocate for policy strategies to change their children's beverage consumption."

The findings of a strong positive relationship between years of education and policy support may suggest rising recognition among higher socioeconomic status groups of the value of policy interventions to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, the study authors wrote.

The study was funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Healthy Eating Research Program.

Source: Preventive Medicine
DOI: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2014.03.002
“Americans' opinions about policies to reduce consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages”
Authors: Sarah E. Gollust, Colleen L. Barry and Jeff Niederdeppe

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