Physicians' groups have long taken a stand against high consumption of sugary drinks in the United States -- and now they are calling for several policies to limit access to sugar-sweetened beverages among children and teens.
The American Academy of Pediatrics and the American Heart Association released policy recommendations on Monday targeted at federal, state and local lawmakers, encouraging them to implement policies that would reduce children's intake of sugary drinks, such as sodas, sports drinks and juice.
The policy statement is the first time AAP has recommended taxes on sugary drinks, it said.
"I talk with my patients and their families all the time about the health harms of sugary drinks and the advantage of drinking primarily water and milk. But still, sugary drinks are a mainstay in many children's diets. They are inexpensive, easy to find, heavily marketed, and taste sweet, so children like them," said Dr. Natalie Muth, a practicing pediatrician and registered dietitian in Carlsbad, California, who was lead author of the policy statement, published in the journal Pediatrics.
"At the same time, pediatricians are diagnosing type 2 diabetes, fatty liver disease, and high cholesterol in our young patients. These are health problems that we rarely saw in children in the past. These are health problems associated with high sugar intake," Muth said.
"We have tried, and failed, to curb sugary drink intake through education and individual choices alone," she said. "Just like policy changes were necessary and effective in reducing consumption of tobacco and alcohol, we need policy changes that will help reduce sugary drink consumption in children and adolescents."
The policy statement specifically calls for:
- an excise tax on sugar-sweetened beverages;
- federal and state governments to support a decrease in marketing of sugary drinks to children and teens;
- federal nutrition assistance programs to ensure access to healthy foods and discourage consumption of sugar-sweetened drinks;
- regulations that require added sugars content to be included on nutrition labels, restaurant menus, and advertisements;
- making healthy beverages, like milk and water, the default on children's menus;
- and an implementation of policies in hospitals to limit or disincentivize purchasing sugary drinks.
Out of all of those policy recommendations, Muth said that a sugary drink excise tax has the greatest "evidence and precedent" to be most impactful.
"We know that an increase in price leads to a decrease in consumption," she said. "We know from the examples of communities where a sugary tax has already been implemented," such as Mexico and Berkeley, California.
In response to the policy statement, "America's beverage companies believe there's a better way to help reduce the amount of sugar consumers get from beverages and it includes putting parents in the driver's seat to decide what's best for their children," William Dermody, a spokesperson for the American Beverage Association, which represents the non-alcoholic beverage industry, said in a statement.
The association argues that beverages are not unique drivers of obesity rates and obesity-related diseases in the United States, as obesity rates have been rising while soda consumption rates have been declining.
"We are supporting parents who want less sugar in their kids' diets by creating more drinks than ever before with less or no sugar, as well as smaller portion sizes, and by backing efforts to make water, milk or 100 percent juice the default beverages restaurants serve with children's meals," he added. "Today, 50 percent of all beverages sold contain zero sugar as we drive toward a goal of reducing beverage calories consumed by 20 percent by 2025."
Efforts to make water or milk default beverages served on children's menus were among the policy recommendations put forth in the new policy statement from the American Academy of Pediatrics and American Heart Association.
The new policy statement comes on the heels of a separate study, published last week in the journal Circulation, which found a positive association between the long-term consumption of sugary drinks and premature death in adults in the United States.
"Most of my work has focused on adults and we have shown that, in addition to weight gain, regular consumption of sugary beverages is associated with higher risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease, stroke, hypertension, some cancers and premature death," said Vasanti Malik, a research scientist in the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health's Department of Nutrition, who was not involved in the new policy statement but led that separate study.
She also praised the new policy statement.
"I thought the joint statement provided a good summary of some key policy strategies to support a reduction in intake of sugary drinks for children and adults," Malik said about the policy statement. "The reason for this call to action is because of the strong and consistent evidence linking intake of sugary beverages to adverse health outcomes."