Teens Are Less Likely to Select Sugary Beverages that Contain Health Warning Labels, Penn Study Shows

Posted on September 9, 2016

PHILADELPHIA — Teens are more than 15% less likely to say they would purchase soft drinks and other sugary drinks that include health warning labels, according to a new study led by researchers at the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics in the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. The study is among the first to examine how warning labels on sugary drinks influence teens, and builds upon research published by the team earlier this year which showed that parents were less likely to select sugary beverages for their kids when labels warning about the dangers of added sugar – which can contribute to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay – were present. The new study is published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine and has significant implications for policies being considered in several states and cities to require sugary drinks to display health warning labels.

“The average teen in the United States consumes at least one sugar-sweetened beverage every day, which could account for more than twice the recommended daily serving of sugar,” said lead author Christina Roberto, PhD, an assistant professor of Medical Ethics & Health Policy at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “The rate of sugar consumption in the US is astounding and contributes significantly to obesity, type 2 diabetes, and other dangerous and costly health conditions.”

In the study, researchers used an online survey to gauge the beverage selections of more than 2,000 participants aged 12-18 and from diverse backgrounds. The beverages included either no label at all, or one of five warning labels — one featuring calorie content, and four displaying a variation of warning text.

Overall, 77% of participants who saw no label said they would select a sugary drink in a hypothetical choice task. Warning labels indicated that consumption of sugary drinks contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay, with slight variations in wording – such as emphasizing that these conditions are “preventable diseases” or clarifying that consuming sugary drinks contributes to “type 2 diabetes.” Depending on the specific phrasing of the warning labels, participants were 8% to 16% less likely to select sugary beverages when health warning labels were present compared to no label.

The authors note that the warning labels also contributed to teenagers’ understanding of the potentially negative effects on health of regularly consuming sugary beverages, with participants viewing the labels indicating they were more likely to understand that these drinks don’t contribute to a healthy lifestyle. Additionally, the majority of participants (62%) said they would support a warning label policy for sugary drinks. 

“The influence of warning labels on the purchasing intentions of teenagers in this study highlights the need for nutrition information at the point of purchase to help people make healthier choices,” said coauthor Eric M. VanEpps, PhD, a postdoctoral researcher at the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. “This study shows that warning labels can affect teenagers’ beverage preferences, and future research will be needed to determine whether these labels are similarly effective in more typical purchasing environments.”

Funding for the study was provided by the Robert Wood Johnson’s Healthy Eating Research program

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