The bitterness behind sugar

Salt, sugar, and supersized: the three main ingredients in American diets. Also the main ingredients for diabetes, heart disease, and obesity. Our infamous caloric intake is increasing more than just our pant size – it’s amplifying some unsavory national health trends.

 According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) more than one-third of adults in the U.S. suffer from obesity (2011-2012 stat). The same frightening statistics also applies to children and adolescents.

What’s to blame? It is the drive-thru lunches we are so fond of, our favorite snacks in the office vending machine, or the endless choice of indulgence at the supermarket? It’s just as hard to pinpoint a singular culprit, as it is to change the narrative, but some are trying to start.

Local governments from New York to California have started to propose legislation that supports less consumption of sugary beverages. Such regulations include removing sugary drink options from schools, adding an extra soda tax, and requiring warning labels. (Read Padma Nagappan’s article to get an overview of previous efforts to limit consumption.)

Most recently, the city and county of San Francisco approved ordinances that would make advertisers include warning labels on qualifying drink ads, as well as prohibit brands from advertising sugary drink products on city-owned property.

In response, the American Beverage Association is suing, claiming that such ordinances violate free speech rights. No matter the argument between government and corporate America, the real question is: will such proposals and ordinances even stop the consumption of sweetened beverages? Carbonated flavored drinks have become an American staple. Can adding a warning label ultimately change American consumer habits?

While the ABA may be up in arms, government use of health labels is hardly a foreign idea; everyday we are exposed to warning labels on two of our biggest indulgences, alcohol and tobacco.

In 1988, congress passed the Alcoholic Beverage Labeling Act (ABLA). In sum, it is dictated two main notions. The first, through its passage, it became required for alcohol labels to carry the following,

“GOVERNMENT WARNING: (1) According to the Surgeon General, women should not drink alcoholic beverages during pregnancy because of the risk of birth defects. (2) Consumption of alcoholic beverages impairs your ability to drive a car or operate machinery, and may cause health problems.”

Secondly, the act also contains a declaration for such a policy, highlighting that, “the American public should be informed about the health hazards that may result from the consumption or abuse of alcoholic beverages, and it would be beneficial to provide a clear, nonconfusing reminder of such”.

Such declaration for the collective benefit of Americans is bound to be a main citation behind the passage for such labels on sugary beverages.

Similarly, health-warning labels have also been mandatory on tobacco packaging for the past 50 years. Congress required tobacco companies to place warnings on cigarette packing beginning in 1965 with the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act, and then so in print advertising in 1969 with the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act.

In January of 1964, the first Surgeon General’s report definitively linked cigarette smoking with disease. Much as it was with the declaration behind the motive for alcohol labeling, the US Public Health Service advisory committee concluded that “cigarette smoking is a health hazard of sufficient importance in the United States to warrant appropriate remedial action”.

With ample studies on the prevalence of obesity and the impact of sugar, there seems to be plausible evidence that labeling sugary drinks would be considered appropriate, if not appraisable, remedial action.

Yet despite how commendable the purpose and the policy, the ultimate question remains, will it even change buying behavior? Alcohol and tobacco have been explicitly cited for their negative health effects yet remain million dollar industries.

As advertisers we must consider both how warning labels affect the psyche of our target consumers and how such affects buying behavior. While we don’t know the specific answers to those questions quite yet, a recent study has shed some light on the current sugar-centric issue. Analyzing warning labels and their effectiveness, the study showed that labels on sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) “improved parents’ understanding of health harms associated with overconsumption of such beverages and may reduce parents’ purchase of SSBs for their children”.

Improving the understanding of the harmful effects of sugar is the primary goal, but is the addition of a label enough to change purchasing decisions? This issue isn’t asking consumers to switch from, for example, using Tide to Gain, or Lysol to Clorox. For some, sugar isn’t just an ingredient; it’s a craving, an addiction.

Scientists have found that sugar is addictive and stimulates the same pleasure centers of the brain as cocaine or heroin. Just like those hard-core drugs, getting off sugar leads to withdrawal and cravings, requiring an actual detox process to wean off”.

Will seeing a label be enough to leave something on the shelf or will bodily craving simply trump all cognitive reason? Much like its tobacco predecessor, health consciousness requires a full campaign, not just a label. It has taken years for smoking to decrease among high school students and adults. It’s taken a movement of health education to instill the damages caused by tobacco, it will take the same for our sugar obsession.

Lobbying for a label is simply just one piece of a much larger and much needed PR campaign. In this case, adding a label is equivalent to having published a single press release and expecting major changes. Everyone who works with public perception knows it will take much, much more. It will take endorsements, education, and media traction across the board. The recent FDA proposal to update our current nutrition model and labels could be the needed piggyback opportunity, and one that legislators should be considering in order gain needed newsworthiness.

Overall, an effective campaign is one that will be able to impact an impressionable youth AND sway hardened adults. While lawmakers have moral grounds (in this case), bottling companies have advertising, who do you think will win?

– Savannah Valade and Caroline Robinson


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