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Should sugar sweetened drinks carry obesity and health warnings?

By Nathan Gray+

30-May-2014

Should sugar sweetened drinks like soda carry a health warning?
Should sugar sweetened drinks like soda carry a health warning?

Calls for the UK and other countries around the world to place tobacco style health warnings on sugary drinks are growing, warns Professor Simon Capewell.

Writing in the BMJ, the UK-based professor of public health and policy suggests a bill recently passed in the US state of California , which requires sugary soft drinks to carry labels warning of obesity, diabetes and tooth decay in the state, should be adopted in the UK and other areas.

In a commentary written for the BMJ before the Californian Senate passed the bill yesterday, Capewell notes that "this remarkable suggestion raises questions about precedents, public support, and the political feasibility of such a move, as well as about science, public health, industry tactics, and comprehensive health strategies."

The University of Liverpool expert believes the such warning labels are a good idea, and one that the public in the UK would support, noting that many other harmful products (such as insecticides and cigarettes) already carry warnings – the effectiveness of which he said is "now agreed by almost everyone."

Indeed, he suggested that such a high level of public support for warnings on the health risks of sugar makes the idea of labelling legislation 'feasible.'

"A recent BBC survey found that 60% of adults would support health warnings similar to those on cigarette packets on food packaging. Even more, 70%, would support "banning sugary drinks in UK schools, or limiting the amount of sugar allowed in certain foods"," said Capewell.

"Furthermore, almost half (45%) would support a tax on sugary drinks," he wrote in the BMJ.

As a result, such sugar sweetened beverages offer an 'obvious target' for policy makers, he suggested, "particularly if similar policies have succeeded elsewhere."

He added that such proposals may also herald a 'tipping point' in public attitudes and political feasibilities: "Investors, industrialists, and international health groups will all be watching closely—some with narrow financial concerns, and others with broader public health aspirations."

Industry backlash?

The BMJ paper also notes that industry to opposition to warning labels on sugary drinks is to be expected, "with a barrage of opposing arguments, reminiscent of previous opposition to standardised tobacco packaging."

"Indeed, the big food and soda manufacturers have traditionally used the “SLEAZE” denialism tactics developed by tobacco and alcohol producers," said Capewell. "But most industry arguments will be flawed: threats to pass additional costs on to consumers, predictions of dire reductions in profits or huge job losses, concerns about consumer resistance to change, and so on."

"In truth, thousands of food and drink products are reformulated and relabelled every year as brands are “refreshed.” And, as already noted, many consumers would support healthier options."

Source: BMJ
Personal view, published online, doi: 10.1136/bmj.g3428
"Sugar sweetened drinks should carry obesity warnings"
Author: Simon Capewell

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