Warning Labels Might Keep Parents From Buying Soda, Study Finds

Warning labels on soda might have less consumer resistance than taxes or portion limits, the study found.

Public health officials agree that keeping kids away from sugar-sweetened drinks, especially soda, is one of the keys to tackling high rates of childhood obesity and diabetes. So far, however, efforts to tax drinks or limit portions have had mixed success, with beverage companies and consumers themselves pushing back.

But a new study published in Pediatrics shows that warning labels—which don’t take away anyone’s rights and are relatively easy to administer—may be the answer.

The study featured an online survey of 2381 parents of children ages 6-11, who were asked to select a beverage for their child from a “vending machine.” The online machine was filled with 6 beverages: 1 had no label, 1 had a label with calories, and 4 had labels with different versions of warnings, all based on California proposals that target nonalcoholic drinks with 75 calories from sweeteners for every 12 fluid ounces.

Researchers from the University of Pennsylvania found that far fewer parents chose sugary beverages if they had a warning label. Only 40% chose a beverage with a warning label, compared with 60% who chose one with no label, or 53% with the calorie label.

Variations of the label warned that sugary beverages could cause “obesity,” “weight gain,” or “preventable diseases,” as well as “type 2 diabetes.” Based on questions that the participants answered, researchers found that the parents believed that the warnings about these health conditions “would help change their beliefs about a beverage’s healthfulness and would encourage them to purchase fewer (sugary beverages) for their children.”

Significantly, while there were some differences by political party, the parents felt strongly that warning labels were preferable to other solutions to curbing use of sugary drinks, such as taxes or limits on portion size.

Researchers acknowledged that the effect seen in the online test might not be as strong in the real word. However, they noted, “if there was a strong social desirability bias, we would expect to also see strong effects from exposure to salient calorie labels, but this did not happen.”

Noting that these parents had been asked to purchase a beverage for a child, the team said future work should look at how warning labels would affect soda purchases for adults and teens.

Besides California, warning labels are being discussed by public health officials in Baltimore, Maryland, and some other cities, although none have passed thus far.

Funding for the study was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.