Should sugary drinks carry warning labels?

A new study claims to show that parents will buy fewer sugary soft drinks for their children if a warning label advises against it, but the dire warning labels on cigarettes seem to have lost their touch. Do warning labels really change minds?

Bebeto Matthews/AP
Writer Stephanie Klose sips a beverage as she participates in a soda taste test in New York. A new study has suggested warning labels on sugary drinks such as soda would persuade parents not to buy them for their children.

Some Americans could see one more warning label during trips to the grocery store.

Legislators in California and New York are considering requiring warning labels on high-sugar drinks as a weapon against childhood obesity, and a study claims the labels would dissuade parents from giving them to their children, Carina Storrs reported for CNN.

The study used an online survey to show 2,381 parents a series of beverages and used labels featured in California's proposed law: "Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay."

When the parents saw sodas and sugary juices with the label, only 40 percent of parents said they would give their child the sugary drink, compared with 53 percent who saw the calorie-count label used currently or 60 percent of parents who saw the drinks with no labels.

"[Health warning labels] provide an extra layer of information that people can understand," said David Hammond, lead researcher and professor in the school of public health at the University of Waterloo in Ontario, according to CNN. 

This study, published Thursday in the journal of Pediatrics, joins a body of research with demonstrated ambivalence on the subject of warning labels. A useful comparison can be found in cigarettes, first packaged with warning labels in 1965. The dire pronouncements about smoking ought to make any potential smoker think twice, but do they?

The US surgeon general says, "yes." In the 50th anniversary report on smoking and health in 2014, Acting Surgeon Gen. Boris Lushniak claimed warnings on individual cigarette packs have saved 8 million lives. Yet at an estimated 500,000 deaths per year, smoking is still considered the leading cause of preventable death in the United States, The Christian Science Monitor's Noelle Swan reported.

The stern warning labels are on every package, but for many smokers they fade into the background, research indicates.

"Unfortunately, since the current requirements for warning labels were established in 1984, their effect on smokers has drastically weakened, and the current labels are now virtually meaningless," according to a report by Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, an advocacy group in Washington, D.C. "Moreover, smokers have become habitualized to the style of labels, to the point that the labels go unnoticed altogether."

Recognizing this, some anti-tobacco advocates supported the US Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009, which would have required graphic pictures to accompany the warning labels on cigarette packs. Research in 2007 by the Center for Disease Control suggested that warning labels with frightening images of children in danger and black lungs might dissuade potential smokers, at least at first. 

Even in that study, however, researchers looked at results from Canada, which already used the colorful pictures to describe what they see as the harms of smoking, and wondered whether the graphic warning labels would have lost their shock value over time.

For similar reasons, the ubiquitousness of warning labels may reduce their effectiveness in the case of sugar. Warning labels now appear on everything from music to grocery bags and printer cartridges.

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