What’s the best policy to curb sugary drinks? It depends.

Written by
Stephanie Scarmo, Ph.D., M.P.H., Senior Manager of Policy Research, Voices for Healthy Kids
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Last March, before the pandemic hit, I was sitting in a hotel ballroom at a research conference chatting over breakfast with three colleagues I admire greatly. We were trying to sort out the evidence that could help advocates, public health officials and decision-makers choose among different policy options to reduce sugary drink consumption in their communities. As we sipped our coffees and nibbled on fruit and yogurt, it became clear that our task wasn’t going to be that easy – there was so much to consider!

I know from my work at Voices for Healthy Kids that our grantees have successfully pursued many policy approaches to reduce sugary drink consumption over the years. There was California, the first state to pass a healthy beverage default policy for restaurant meals; Navajo Nation, which passed a tax on ‘junk foods’ (including sugary drinks); and various cities in Arkansasadopting healthier standards for vending machines on public property.

Choosing among different policy options involves important considerations. My colleagues and I summarized the current evidence for proven and promising strategies to reduce sugary drink consumption in a new paper that came out this month. We started by sorting different policy options into four categories:

  • Financial (taxes, restrictions on price/volume promotions, health incentives on unsweetened beverages)

  • Information (warning labels on front of package, warning labels on advertising, marketing restrictions)

  • Defaults (healthy beverage defaults in restaurant meals)

  • Availability (beverage procurement, healthy retail, restrictions to federal nutrition assistance programs).

Next, we provided specific examples of each type of policy option and the evidence behind it. For example, taxes on sugary drinks, including fruit drinks with added sugars, sports drinks and soda, are a proven way to reduce purchases of these drinks.

We also provided some of the cross-cutting considerations an advocate or decision-maker might have: Will the policy advance equity? Is there sufficient evidence for impact? Is the policy politically feasible, legal and practical to implement?

Ultimately, we know that what works for one community will not work for all and solutions need to be community-driven and centered in equity. Our review found that a combination approach may provide the greatest success in reducing sugary drinks. For more, please check out the full study, “Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Reduction Policies: Progress and Promise.”

[*Note: Blog based on new paper: Krieger J, Bleich SN, Scarmo S, Ng SW. Sugar-sweetened beverage reduction policies: progress and promise. Annu Rev Public Health. 2021; 42:439-461. doi: 10.1146/annurev-publhealth-090419-103005.]


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