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Policy Changes Can Prevent Kids from Consuming Sugary Drinks

Dr. Sara Bleich, Professor of Public Health Policy at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health in the Department of Health Policy and Management, shares insights from her research related to kids’ consumption of sugary drinks. Dr. Bleich has devoted her career to preventing obesity, hoping to help today’s kids grow into healthy adults.   

“I’m particularly interested in children because little kids who have obesity are likely to have obesity as adults. It’s very hard to stop that trajectory once it starts. Anything that we can do to help kids grow up at a healthy weight is an investment that’s well worth making.”

— Dr. Sara Bleich, Professor of Public Health Policy, Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, Department of Health Policy and Management

These days, many parents and their children know that sugary drinks, including fruit juices, sports drinks, and soda pop, are not good for them and should be avoided. But few know it better than Dr. Sara Bleich and her family. Bleich, an obesity prevention researcher, knows just how bad sugary drinks are for kids; the data are so concerning that she allows her two young children to consume sugary drinks only at parties. 

Dr. Bleich explains that, when her children go to parties, they are allowed to choose either a sugary beverage or a piece of cake. To make her point, Bleich shared a story about being at a child’s birthday party where someone said to her: “Your daughter is so funny . . . I offered her juice and she said, ‘can I see the cake first?”

Early Prevention Is Key

Dr. Bleich is passionate about her children’s health, and her passion extends to the health of all children. She has devoted her career to preventing obesity, hoping to help today’s kids grow into healthy adults. “I’m particularly interested in children,” Bleich said, “because little kids who have obesity are likely to have obesity as adults. It’s very hard to stop that trajectory once it starts.” 

In fact, research suggests that if current trends continue, a majority (57.3 percent) of today’s children (ages 2-19) will be obese by the time they are 35. “The numbers are just scary,” said Bleich. “Anything that we can do to help kids grow up at a healthy weight is an investment that’s well worth making.”

Why We Focus on Sugary Drinks

Science links obesity to chronic diseases, such as diabetes, heart disease, and cancer, which are the leading causes of death and disability in the United States. Further, sugary drinks, which contribute half of all added sugar to the diets of children ages two and older, have been found to promote weight gain in children and adults

Fortunately, overall rates of sugary drink consumption are going down, but progress has been uneven: it’s declined a lot less among children and teens from families with low incomes compared to their peers from more affluent families. There also are differences in sugary drink consumption by race and ethnicity: Black and Latino children, who are at higher risk for obesity, consistently have the highest intake levels of sugary drinks. These data are particularly concerning now, given that COVID-19 disproportionately affects low-income communities and communities of color, as well as people with obesity or other health complications.

Bottom line: even with consumption declining, too many children and teens, especially those most vulnerable to health disparities, are still drinking too many sugary beverages. In response, Dr. Bleich recommends policy changes that encourage children and families to buy and drink fewer sugary beverages. 

According to Bleich, the public knows sugary drinks are not healthy and is okay with limiting children’s access to them. “That public attitude greases the wheels for policy work actually happening,” said Bleich.

“If you’re working on policy relevant issues, it’s important to look for the low-hanging fruit. To me, sugary beverages have always felt like a low-hanging fruit because they’re easy to isolate, easy to understand, and relatively easier to craft policy around.” 

Changing Labels Can Change Kids’ Habits

Bleich and her research colleagues did a study that found placing easily understandable calorie information on sugary drinks labels–particularly explaining how much physical activity it would take to burn off the calories in just one drink–reduced calorie intake from sugary drinks among Black teens from low-income families. 

Graphic showing activity to burn 250 calories

According to Bleich, “We told them a bottle of soda was 250 calories. We also said that’s equivalent to 15 minutes of running or five miles of walking. By making the calories more meaningful, we saw calories from purchased sugary beverages go down, the number of sugary beverage purchases go down, some kids didn’t buy a drink at all, and there was a persistent effect on those outcomes afterwards.”

The study generated a lot of interest among public health advocates and researchers, and additional studies looking at similar questions. “That was one of the first times I felt I was asking questions where the answers mattered a lot in the real-world, and I wanted to do more of it,” Bleich said.

Benefits of Taxing Sugary Drinks

In recent years, Bleich and her colleagues focused on the effect of taxes on sugary beverage purchases since taxes change the food environment rather than focusing on individual behavior change.

“We know from mountains of literature on tobacco that, if you increase tobacco prices, people smoke less. And now we have growing evidence about beverage taxes that tells us if we increase the prices of sugary drinks, people buy fewer of them.”

Three years after Berkeley’s sugary drink beverage tax was implemented, which was the first in the country, evidence suggests that consumption has decreased.

Bleich herself has studied the effects of a sugary drink tax. Her research on Philadelphia’s 1.5 cent per ounce sales tax on sugary drinks showed that the volume of taxed beverages sold dropped by about 40 percent, and the drops appear larger among those with low education. Bleich believes that is very encouraging from an equity perspective because this is also a population who is at higher risk for obesity and for many diet-related diseases. 

Both Berkeley and Philadelphia put the tax revenue toward efforts to improve public health. In Berkeley, a school-based gardening and cooking program, a public education campaign, health screenings and dental care. Philadelphia uses the revenue to fund universal pre-Kindergarten education for children, community schools, and green spaces.

Creating Opportunity from Crisis

Dr. Bleich believes we have an opportunity right now to implement a national tax on sugary drinks. She points out, for example, how the COVID-19 pandemic is affecting some children’s access to food options.

“When kids are in school, particularly those who get a lot of their meals and beverages there, they are somewhat protected from unhealthy influences. The longer the pandemic goes on, the longer kids have exposure to sugary drinks outside of school. I think there probably was, and will continue to be, an uptake of sugary beverages over this period.”

Bleich shared: “If I were queen for a day, I would use the unfortunate COVID-19 crisis, which has created enormous resource gaps for government, to pass a national tax on sugary drinks and use that revenue toward improving the public’s health.”

Published on October 14, 2020


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