Drinking lots of soda is bad for you. So, some campaigners argue, it's time to start putting warning labels on bottles, cans, and ads. If we caution people about tobacco, they argue, then why not drinks with seven teaspoons of sugar in every 6.5 ounces?
Last year, San Francisco approved a measure that would force manufacturers to put notices on billboards and other ads (though it's currently subject to a lawsuit and not in force). And, New York and California are currently considering bills that would put warnings directly on products. California's proposed wording reads: "Safety Warning: Drinking beverages with added sugar[s] contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay."
Would these messages encourage people to drink less of what's bad for them? A new study says yes—though the effect perhaps isn't that dramatic. Researchers showed warnings to 2,381 parents and asked whether they would change their mind about giving "sugar-sweetened beverages" (SSBs) to their kids. Forty percent said they still would, compared to 60% when there was no label, and 53% when just calorie counts were displayed. Studies show that about half of kids under 11 drink SSBs on a daily basis.
"Warning labels led parents to believe that SSBs were significantly less healthy, less likely to make their child feel energized, less likely to help their child to focus, and more likely to increase their child’s risk of weight gain, heart disease, and diabetes relative to both the calorie label and control groups," the study, published in the journal Pediatrics, says.
Lead author Christina Roberto, an assistant professor of medical ethics and health policy at the University of Pennsylvania, says the results are in line with the demonstrated effects of warning labels on tobacco products, which have been shown to encourage people to stop smoking.
However, any move to put SSBs in the same category as cigarettes is likely to be fiercely contested by Big Soda. The manufacturers' lawsuit in San Francisco says the city is interfering in the "free marketplace of ideas" and should be resisted on First Amendment grounds.
The question—as ever—is whether the government has a right to intervene to save people from themselves (or even just suggest they might consider doing so) and lower health costs, or whether people should be left alone to kill themselves as they please. It's a tricky dilemma, though there's no doubt that soda is really bad for you.