Next Up in the Soda Wars: Health Warning Labels for New York?

The state legislature is considering a bill that would require sugary drinks to bear language addressing health risks.

(Illustration: Getty Images)

Nov 17, 2014· 1 MIN READ
Willy Blackmore is TakePart’s Food editor.

The first label warning consumers that “Cigarette Smoking May Be Hazardous to Your Health” was affixed to packs of Lucky Strikes, Camels, and other smokes back in 1966. The surgeon general’s warning came later, and in recent years things have progressed even further, with some packages bearing graphic photos of the physical damage caused by various sorts of cancer.

Meanwhile, soda remains a carefree consumer product, unencumbered by warning labels. But when it comes to public health policy, soda is the new tobacco. First, a new soda tax received voter approval in Berkeley, California, this month—very much a page taken from the cigarette-regulations handbook—with Michael Bloomberg promising to fund similar measures elsewhere. Now, there’s a soda warning label bill bubbling up in the New York State Legislature.

The bill, sponsored by state Assemblyman Karim Camara, D-Brooklyn, would require sugary drinks to bear a label that reads “Safety Warning: Drinking beverages with added sugar contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.”

“We can’t sit back and pretend that sugary drinks aren’t harmful to people,” Camara said in a statement. “We have a public health crisis, which is a direct result of people consuming too much sugar.”

But would the equivalent of a 1966-era cigarette warning label for soda do much to curb consumption? Smoking rates have been on the decline in the United States since the mid-1960s, but the contrast between smoking and cancer and soda and obesity isn’t a perfect one. Still, because there isn’t quite the same wealth of research on soda warning labels as there is for soda taxes, it’s tempting to look at the history of tobacco labels for insights. While the health issues don’t line up exactly, cigarettes and soda do share similar concerns regarding regulations and usage in poor and minority communities.

“There is a nagging question whether benefits from social policies accrue equally across ethnic and racial minority and social class groups,” Vish Viswanath, an associate professor at Harvard School of Public Health, said in a 2013 press release. While he could have been speaking about soda, the study being announced looked at the effectiveness of graphic warning labels on cigarettes.

“The evidence from this paper shows that this new policy of mandated Graphic Health Warnings would benefit all groups,” he continued. “Given the disproportionate burden of tobacco-related disease faced by the poor and minorities, mandating strong pictorial warnings is an effective and efficient way to communicate the risk of tobacco use.”

Viswanath's study, published in the journal PLOS One, found that labels showing the physical effects of cancer and other diseases associated with smoking were a more effective deterrent, “with smokers indicating the labels are more impactful, credible, and have a greater effect on their intentions to quit,” according to the statement.

How similar labels could function for soda without wandering into fat-shaming territory is difficult to imagine, but if lawmakers want to map new soda regulations against tobacco, they might want to look at more contemporary examples than 1966.