Sugary drinks: health impacts and equity implications

The Balance Sugary Drinks episode; a woman against an orange background holds a can of soda in her hand.

“Sugary drinks are uniquely problematic for a variety of reasons.”

One of those problems is that sugary drinks are everywhere: grocery store aisles dedicated to pop, juices, sports and energy drinks, at restaurants, at summer fairs, food stalls and markets, in advertisements, on billboards and in our social media feeds.

In this episode of The Balance, we spoke with Dr. Tom Warshawski, chair of the Childhood Obesity Foundation, about the health implications of sugary drinks (otherwise known as sugar-sweetened beverages or SSBs). He highlights some of the negative impacts sugary drinks can have on our bodies: a higher risk of type 2 diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, stroke, and 13 to 18 different cancers.

But what can we do to reduce sugary drink consumption, on a personal level as well as a policy level? Warshawski says one way is to consider sugary drinks as a treat instead of a regular beverage.

“The best thing to do is don’t buy (sugary drinks) but if this is something that your family enjoys, I’d say just have it on the weekends,” he says. “Don’t have it in the house, don’t stock it in the cupboards. Have it as a special treat for the weekends.”

“Sugary drinks really are liquid candy, it’s not a beverage. And candy is okay once in a while.”

Another way we can reduce sugary drink consumption is through taxation. We also spoke with Dr. Jim Krieger, professor at the University of Washington’s School of Public Health and Executive Director of Healthy Food America, about the impact taxation can have on sugary drink consumption and the benefits communities can get from tax revenues.

“The challenge, and why it’s an equity issue, is because of predatory and discriminatory marketing and because of how cheap companies make this stuff,” Krieger says. “(Sugary drinks) tax revenues could be invested to address the social determinants of health, so to go upstream and improve the conditions in communities impacted by sugary drink consumption.”

As part of his research and the work he does at Healthy Food America, Krieger and his colleagues have found that sugary drinks taxes, when designed well, don’t have a negative financial impact on low income consumers. Instead, when the tax revenues are invested back into communities through a designated fund, they can improve access to healthy food and drink, support for physical activity opportunities, health and nutrition education, and health promotion among other things.

“The most important thing is that taxes are not viewed solely as… a mechanism to reduce consumption, but also [recognized as a source of revenue that can be] invested to benefit the people in places that have negative impacts from sugary drink consumption, communities that have been impacted by health inequities,” he says.

To hear more about centering equity in taxing sugary drinks and reducing its health impacts in our communities, listen to the new episode.

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