Study Links Sugary Drinks to a Staggering Amount of Deaths per Year

Low- and middle-income countries are bearing the brunt of the burden.

(Photo: Lucy Nicholson/Reuters)

Jul 1, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Josh Scherer has written for Epicurious, Thrillist, and Los Angeles magazine. He is constantly covered in corn chip crumbs.

Share a Coke with Javier. Share a Coke with Samantha. Share a Coke with a Dreamer. Share a Coke with 184,000 people around the world whose deaths are linked to sugar-sweetened beverages each year.

That last one might be too wordy to fit on a 12-ounce can, but that’s the final number reached in a study—released Monday in the American Heart Association’s journal Circulation—analyzing the link between sugary drinks and life-threatening disease.

Researchers from Tufts University used statistics from national dietary surveys to capture beverage consumption patterns across 50 countries from 1980 to 2010. Then they applied those numbers to previous studies done on the effect of drinkable sugar on obesity. Finally, they studied the link between obesity and diet-related diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, and various types of cancer.

RELATED: Another Deadly Reason Why You Should Stop Drinking Soda

Critics of the study point out that it was limited in its capacity to estimate the amount of sugar that would be consumed even if soda companies were to drop off the map. If someone stops drinking Coke and picks up a Twinkie, is that person any less likely to get diabetes? The American Beverage Association—a trade group representing Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and many other sugary-drink makers—sure doesn’t think so.

“This study does not show that consuming sugar-sweetened beverages causes chronic diseases, and the authors themselves acknowledge that they are at best estimating effects of sugar-sweetened beverage consumption,” the ABA said in a statement released Tuesday.

Even though the ABA is heavily incentivized to make people think soda isn’t one of the primary drivers of worldwide disease, it has indeed been difficult to get an accurate representation of how global health would be affected if sugar-sweetened beverage consumption dropped.

So, Why Should You Care? Of the total 184,000 estimated deaths, the researchers attributed 133,000 to diabetes, 45,000 to cardiovascular disease, and 6,450 to cancer. Additionally, the study found that Mexico has the highest percentage of deaths by drinkable sugar—405 per million adults—and that roughly one in every 100 obesity-related deaths is linked to liquid consumables. The problem is most heavily felt in developing countries, which account for about 75 percent of the total death count.

In January 2014, Mexico enacted what is widely considered the world’s first “soda tax,” applying a one-peso (about seven cents) surcharge to every liter of sugar-sweetened beverage. Coca-Cola sales dropped 6.4 percent in the first three months of the tax, and more than half of Mexicans reported drinking less soda. Mexico’s National Institute of Public Health recently conducted a study that spanned 53 cities across the country; it found that total consumption dropped about 12 percent, and the biggest decrease was seen in low-income families. The study has not yet been peer-reviewed.

Because Mexico’s soda tax is so new, there’s not enough data to tell whether or not the decrease in consumption has had a long-term effect on obesity. But, especially given Mexico’s status as both a low-income and a developing country, researchers will undoubtedly be keeping a close eye on it as a key statistical primer for soda’s negative effects.

However, senior study author Dariush Mozaffarian is confident that limiting the intake of soda—and similar drinks such as sweetened ice teas, sports drinks, energy drinks, and fruit drinks—would have a massively beneficial effect on global health.

“There are no health benefits from sugar-sweetened beverages,” he said in a statement. “And the potential impact of reducing consumption is saving tens of thousands of deaths each year.”