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Study Finds Teens Respond to Warning Labels on Soda


The study supports earlier findings that warning labels affect parental choices of beverages for their children.

While teens drink less soda than they once did, a recent University of Pennsylvania study found that that three-fourths of them still drink some type of sugar-sweetened beverage every day. That’s why public health officials fighting childhood obesity see driving down the number of calories consumed in soda as such an important part of their efforts.

But what’s the best way to do this? Soda taxes like those adopted in the cities of Berkeley and Philadelphia have been fought vigorously by the beverage industry. Another solution studied is the warning label, pioneered decades ago as a tool to combat cigarette smoking.

Results of a controlled experiment published Thursday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine1 finds that labels can have an effect on beverage choices by teenagers. In this intervention, a total of 2202 demographically diverse adolescents aged 12 to 18 years completed an online survey, which assigned them to 1 of 6 conditions:

· No warning label.

· A calorie label.

· 1 of 4 text versions of a warning label, which contained safety information that said drinking beverages with added sugar contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.

The results showed significantly fewer adolescents chose a sugar-sweetened beverage when shown 1 of the safety labels (65%, 63%, and 61%, respectively) than when they were shown beverages with no label (77%).

There were several encouraging findings in the study. First, 2 of the warning labels caused the participants to report being less likely to buy sugary beverages in the future, and results showed the warnings appeared to have a greater impact than the calorie readings. Second, the influence of the warning labels did not vary based on the parents’ education level, which suggests that socioeconomic factors may matter less for these labels than for other nutrition labels, such as restaurant menu calorie information.

Overall, the study supports proposed laws in California and elsewhere that support warning labels on beverage packaging, the authors say. Earlier research on warning labels, which found they affected parents’ choices of beverages for their children, showed that support for labels was bipartisan, whereas soda taxes are highly controversial. Providing information is seen as giving something to the public that allows them to make an informed choice, as opposed to the burden of a tax.2

“Providing this kind of information is a classic public health intervention that has been used to minimize environmental exposure to toxins, increase sanitation to prevent food-borne illnesses, and reduce the use of tobacco products,” said Jim O’Hara, director of Health Promotion Policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI). “It’s time to use this public health tool in the fight against soda-related diseases.”

CSPI has strongly supported efforts to limit soda consumption as part of broader efforts to curb obesity and improve health.


1. VanEpps EM, Roberto CA. The influence of sugar-sweetened beverage warnings: a randomized trial of adolescents’ choices and beliefs [published online September 8, 2016]. Am J Preven Med. http://www.ajpmonline.org/article/S0749-3797(16)30258-6/pdf

2. Roberto CA, Wong D, Muscius A, Hammond D. The influence of sugar-sweetened beverage health warning labels on parents’ choices. Pediatrics. January 2016; DOI: 10.1542/peds.2015-3185.

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