A public health professor co-authored a report last week pushing lawmakers to regulate the sale and distribution of sugary drinks to help combat childhood obesity.
The authors issued six public policy recommendations aiming to reduce obesity and diabetes, including taxing sweetened drinks and decreasing the number of advertisements for beverages targeted toward children and teenagers. The report – published in the journal Pediatrics – was sponsored by the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association.
William Dietz, the director of the Sumner M. Redstone Global Center for Prevention and Wellness and a professor of prevention and community health in the Milken Institute School of Public Health, said the American Academy of Pediatrics invited him more than a year ago to conduct research and help write the report.
Researchers spent about a year researching past policies and collecting data about the promotion and popularity of sugary drinks, Dietz said. The process of finalizing the report – including a review by the American Academy of Pediatrics – spanned about six months, he said.
“There has been a longstanding concern about the amount of juice that kids have been drinking and, more recently, the amount of soda that kids have been drinking,” he said.
Dietz, one of four authors on the report, said high sugar intake is “a major contributor” to increasing obesity rates across the nation. Obesity affects almost 14 million children and teenagers in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The researchers first recommended establishing an extra tax on sugary drinks, which Dietz said would deter consumers from purchasing soda or juice.
The report also recommends that hospitals decrease the availability of sweetened drinks in their vending machines and cafeterias. Dietz said hospital staff can also set an example by more visibly labeling beverages with their sugar content.
“When hospitals do that, that sends a message that these drinks are not healthful, and that’s really as much for the benefit of their staff as anybody else,” he said.
Natalie Muth, a co-author of the report who serves on the executive committee of the American Academy of Pediatrics section on obesity, said she initiated the public policy research and recruited the other academics to the project.
She said that when the American Academy of Pediatrics publicly supports a policy, the organization’s state chapters often take initiative and push local lawmakers to create legislation supporting the academy’s research.
“The time has come,” Muth said. “It’s not a political issue. This is really for the health of our children, and the time has come to make some of these changes.”
Muth said the recommendations also include guidance on marketing policies – which she hopes will prevent “all kinds of junk” from being advertised to children and teenagers. She said marketing companies spend about $800 million each year promoting sugary drinks to young people, and more than half of teenagers in the United States see an advertisement every day for a sweetened drink.
“Children and adolescents are very vulnerable to them, especially kids are not able to understand the difference necessarily between an advertisement and content – what they’re watching on TV or what app they’re looking at,” she said.
She added that more consumers would not be as apt to buy sugary drinks if they were more aware of the adverse health effects of sugary drink consumption, like obesity, heart disease, diabetes and tooth decay.
“I’ve seen kids as young as two in my practice that have shown signs of fatty liver disease – I diagnosed a teenager with Type 2 diabetes,” she said. “Those are things that we’re not really supposed to be seeing in children and adolescents, but we are because the food and beverage environment in which our kids are growing up is so harmful to their health.”
Rachel Johnson – another co-author of the study, the former chair of the American Heart Association’s nutrition committee and a retired professor emeritus of nutrition at the University of Vermont – said she has a “long history” of conducting research, publishing scientific papers and engaging in advocacy about sugary drinks.
Johnson said the report “puts the gravitas” of two of the leading health groups in the United States – the American Heart Association and the American Academy of Pediatrics – behind the “urgent” need to reduce children’s intake of sugary drinks.
“My hope is the statement will be influential in moving legislation and other policy changes forward to make the changes needed to protect our children’s health,” she said in an email.