Commentary in the BMJ backs a new health bill currently under consideration by the State of California, which would require the addition of health warning labels to sugary drinks and vending machines.
Under "Sugar Sweetened Beverages Safety Warning Act," all sweetened non-alcoholic drinks would be required to carry the label: "STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay."
Owners of vending machines not bearing the required labeling could also be fined up to $500 under the new act.
Sugary drinks are popular in the US, with the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey showing that 50% of the population consume these drinks daily, while 5% consume the equivalent of four cans of cola each day. Despite this, almost 75% of bipartisan Californian voters expressed support for the new bill in a recent field poll. And growing public enthusiasm for sugar-related health warnings is not limited to the US.
Writing in his opinion piece for the BMJ, Simon Capewell, professor of public health and policy at the University of Liverpool in the UK, notes that a recent public opinion poll in the UK found that about 60% of adults surveyed would support health warnings on food packaging similar to the health warnings that come with cigarettes. Going even further, the poll found that 45% would support a tax on sugary drinks.
Capewell wonders if calorie control strategies aimed at tackling the obesity epidemic might benefit from a similar approach to tobacco and alcohol control. Population-wide policies, he notes, are generally more successful than interventions that target individuals, and may enact change more quickly and at a fraction of the cost.
"Sugar is increasingly implicated as a specific causal factor," he says, for obesity, type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and common cancers.
Studies he cites find that sugary drinks account for as much as 10% of a child's energy intake, and that adults who drink more than one can of sugary soda a day have a 22% higher risk of developing type 2 diabetes than adults who drink less than one can a month.
Capewell argues that sugary drinks should be a magnet for policymakers. He identifies proposals such as the new bill as a "a tipping point in public attitudes and political feasibilities," where popular opinion and appetite for healthier options are driving policy change.