WARNING: What’s on a label may determine your choices

Do you remember the first time you saw the graphic warnings on a package of cigarettes?  I do.  I remember having a visceral reaction to the graphic depicting the consequences of mouth disease. It looked painful and ugly.  Who would start smoking when faced with that?!

It turns out warning labels are an effective strategy in bringing down smoking rates. The research now proves that health warnings do work – and the key lessons are: the larger, the better. Graphics work better than text and different messages resonate better with different audiences (think about the messages on how smoke affects the fetus and the links with impotence).

With that experience, health professionals are looking to see whether warning labels could be used with the same success on unhealthy foods and drinks.

A recent study in the Journal of Pediatrics, demonstrated that warning labels do have the ability to influence the drinks parents choose for their kids. Comparisons showed that parents were much less likely to choose a sugary drink for their children when shown labels that warned of specific health consequences (type 2 diabetes, tooth decay and obesity) compared to labels with the calories posted on the front or with no warning labels.

Another recent article in the British Medical Journal, made a call for food labels that would list how much exercise would be required to burn off the calories in that product.  While this seems like a novel approach at first glance, the problem is that it plays right into the way industry wants to frame this issue.

The food and beverage industry wants to downplay the negative health consequences that come from consuming their sugar-laden products and say everyone just needs to get off the couch and get more active. Aside from all the barriers that exist when it comes to shifting behaviours – that is, getting people who are sedentary to become even slightly more active; there is also the simple problem of having enough time in the day to exercise off all the excess calories from an unhealthy diet. You can’t outrun an unhealthy diet.

Historically, we know there was much resistance to warning labels on tobacco when they were first introduced.  Our own Mary Collins, who is the director here, knows this first-hand – she was the Minister of Health that brought in the first warning labels on cigarettes.  The tobacco companies argued fiercely against them – saying that they infringed on free speech and unfairly targeted their products.

Looking back – they probably fought so hard because they knew warning labels would work.  And that is exactly why we should be looking to put them on sugary drinks today.

Rita Koutsodimos
Manager, Advocacy and Communications
April 2016

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