Editorial: Health warnings on sugary drinks are a sensible policy

Beating the sugary-drink habit
FAIRFAX NZ

Beating the sugary-drink habit

Editorial: There is a good case for sugar warning labels on bottles and cans. Sugary drinks are a major source of our excessive sugar intake. They are an important part of the rich world's obesity problem. 

There is mounting evidence that sugar warnings are effective. A study in the journal Pediatrics last month found that parents were on average 20 per cent less likely to buy a sugary drink after reading a health warning than if they did not see the warning. This is not a silver bullet in the war against obesity, as the authors of the study point out. But it would help.

There are no good arguments against the use of warning labels. A safety warning that says "Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay" is both modest and correct.

 It is not like the graphically shocking images that some medical experts say should be used. Photographs of young children with rotten teeth are arguably both excessive and misleading.

But sugar drinks are the most important source of sugars for children and young people, as Dental Association spokesman Rob Beaglehole says. The drinks have no nutritional value, and they displace healthier beverages and maintain a natural desire for sweetness. They are "low-hanging fruit" and a  sensible target for public health campaigners.

The warnings fulfil the consumer's basic right to information about what is in food and drinks and what health effects they are likely to have. As such, it is impossible to see what the objection to them can be.

The food industry, of course, has lobbied hard and effectively against warning labels, but its  arguments are feeble. Food lobbyist Kerry Tyack says the labels are unnecessary and would serve only to shame those who enjoy the occasional treat drink. The warnings focus on only one food product group, whereas obesity has many causes.

In fact, experience suggests the warnings are entirely necessary: the consumption of these harmful drinks is massive and "education" has failed to make a difference. Occasional consumers of the drinks would of course feel no shame: why should they? It's the habitual drinkers whose health is suffering, and whose behaviour might change if warning labels were used.

Finally, it's nonsense to say that the warnings in effect blame the obesity epidemic on sugar drinks. They don't; they merely attack one important cause of it.  These arguments are used by food lobby groups around  the world, and they have had far too much influence over governments, including John Key's.

Health Minister Jonathan Coleman reportedly has ruled out health warnings, but this is pure politics and has nothing to do with public health. Coleman, in this as in all other areas of the obesity issue, runs scared of the "nanny state" argument, which is both silly and irrelevant.

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The obesity epidemic will not be solved by exhortations to exercise and by "education" campaigns. The food industry will fight hard against effective food health warnings, but signs are that the political scene is changing. The campaign for mandatory food health warnings is gathering steam around the world. In this battle, governments have to decide whose side they are on

 - Stuff

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