Sugary drinks are a mainstay in many children’s diets. The ubiquity, low cost, slick marketing, and sweet taste of soda, sports drinks, and fruit-flavored beverages all appeal to children. As adults, we need to do more to protect our kids from the very real and lasting harm these drinks pose to our children’s health.
For years, pediatricians and the public health community have tried various strategies to get kids to eat less added sugar. We talk about healthy eating with patients and families. We encourage kids to eat more fruits and vegetables and avoid sugary drinks. We share the strong evidence linking too much sugar to diabetes, heart disease, tooth decay, and myriad other health harms.
Regrettably, this important health message is being drowned out by a beverage industry that inundates our kids with ads that distort sugary drinks as being fun, safe, and even healthy. The results speak for themselves. The beverage industry has been financially rewarded for its efforts, with the typical child in the U.S. consuming over 30 gallons of sugary drinks every year. That is enough to fill a bathtub. The 2015-2020 Dietary Guidelines for Americans recommend that children and teens consume fewer than 10% of calories from added sugars. But data shows that children and teens now consume nearly twice that, more than half of which comes from drinks.
We agree that making good individual choices and fostering healthy homes are critically important. But equally important is to create public policies and an environment in which healthier options and choices are available and encouraged. We have learned from experience that it is a combination of education and public policy that is necessary to curb drunk driving, reduce tobacco use, and combat alcohol abuse. Similar public health initiatives are needed to reduce sugary drink consumption in children and adolescents, and to lower the 40,000 deaths annually in the United States as a result of consuming too many sugary drinks.
In a new policy statement, the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association endorse several public health measures designed to reduce children’s consumption of sugary drinks, including increased taxes, decreased marketing to children and adolescents, setting milk and water as default options on children’s restaurant menus, implementing nutrition and warning labels, and supporting hospital policies that limit or discourage their purchase.
These policies work. Price increases are associated with decreases in consumption. Raising tobacco taxes has resulted in precipitous drops in cigarette use in states and communities across the country, especially in children and people of lower socioeconomic status. Alcohol excise taxes have reduced excess alcohol consumption and alcohol-associated motor vehicle collisions.
Sugary drink taxes are showing a similar trend. They have successfully reduced consumption in cities including Berkeley, Calif., San Francisco, and Philadelphia, particularly among populations with higher-than-average rates of heart disease and diabetes. The revenue from these taxes is also setting up children for a healthier future, from expansion of pre-K programs to support for community schools and upgrades to parks and recreation facilities. States such as California, Connecticut, and Massachusetts are considering sugary drink tax legislation, and we endorse these bills wholeheartedly.
We’re seeing momentum on other policies endorsed in the joint statement:
- California, New York City, and Baltimore and other jurisdictions have passed laws ensuring that healthier drinks, including milk and water, are standard on children’s menus. Even the American Beverage Association endorsed the New York City law.
- Next year, the "Nutrition Facts" label on many packaged foods and beverages will be updated to include added sugars. This change will help to prevent an estimated 1 million cases of cardiovascular disease and diabetes nationwide.
- Chain restaurants nationwide must now post calorie information on their menus and provide other nutrition information to consumers upon request, resulting in a projected net savings of $8 billion to the healthcare system over the next 20 years.
Every child deserves to grow up healthy. We can promote healthy beverage options and discourage sugary drink consumption through proven policy initiatives such as taxes, menu changes, and nutrition education. Children and families across the country will reap the benefits.
Dr. Natalie Muth, a pediatrician and nutritionist, was the lead author of the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Heart Association's recent official statement titled "Public policies to reduce sugary drink consumption in children and adolescents." Dr. Rachel Johnson is former chair of the American Heart Association's Nutrition Committee.