Tap into the Tap to Reduce Sugar Consumption – and Shrink Waistlines While Boosting the Economy
|San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors unanimously passed a measure June 9 requiring warning labels on sugary drinks – the latest skirmish in the ongoing battle around how best to deal with the health effects of excessive soda consumption. “We know health warnings work,” said Scott Weiner, the supervisor who sponsored the measure.|
Beverage companies, naturally, disagree. The American Beverage Association filed a complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California to challenge the ordinances. They argue that the ordinances single out sugary drinks as more hazardous than other foods or beverages and impose a one-sided dialogue about health.
But as we search for effective measures to combat the obesity epidemic, there is one beverage that works that definitely requires no warning label: water. It’s healthy, thirst-quenching, and (mostly) free. What must be done to nudge Americans to make water a bigger part of their daily routine?
Often the daily choices Americans make about what they eat and drink are unhealthy ones, contributing to a national obesity rate of more than 33 percent. Lowering this rate is essential to controlling rising health-care costs and improving quality of life. While many factors contribute to obesity, sugary drinks are among the drivers. In “Drink Different: Feasible Strategies to Reduce Obesity,” published by the Milken Institute, we conducted the first-ever analysis of the likely effect that lowering consumption of sugary drinks would have on both public health and finances. We discovered that even a modest reduction would have a major health impact and generate solid economic dividends.
In 2010, Americans consumed an average of 14 twelve-ounce servings of sugary drinks each month. Though that number is already declining, if we get serious about reducing obesity and cut that number to only six per month, the number of obese Americans would be reduced by 2.6 million people by 2030. Reaching this goal would produce an overall savings of more than $25 billion for the U.S health-care system. Clearly there are both strong financial and health incentives to implement public policies promoting healthier beverage choices.
Policy makers, community leaders, and researchers have all searched for a solution to the obesity epidemic. Targets could include setting sugary drink prices substantially higher, potentially via a tax, to make healthy alternatives more price-competitive, complemented by a supportive environment that nudges an active lifestyle and raises consumers’ awareness. There is also a need for continued corporate social responsibility efforts that cultivate healthy living. Business leaders increasingly recognize the value of investing in healthier choices and respond by taking constructive action. In 2014, the three leading global soda companies pledged to support a 20 percent reduction in Americans’ consumption of calories from sugary drinks by 2025.
To be sure, changing behavior patterns can be difficult. But starting a single healthy habit is an attainable goal – and one of the best is to increase our consumption of water. Bottled water can be part of this shift, and most bottled water tastes great and is safe. But there’s one big drawback: bottled water is not free. To reduce consumption of caloric drinks, the relative price of water must be substantially lower. For example, even as some cities try to make soda more expensive by levying taxes on carbonated beverages, the price of post-tax soda is not yet great enough to have a dramatic effect.
For a healthy, convenient, and affordable daily beverage, tap water is tops, or should be. While Americans are fortunate that the majority of us have access to clean tap water, in about 8 percent of American homes using community water systems, tap water is not drinkable. Advocacy groups and service organizations, from Agua4all in California to the Indian Health Service, are working toward raising awareness of unsafe water. They also engage local governments, businesses and other stakeholders to collaborate in creating the necessary infrastructure to bring safe water to homes.
But water should be palatable as well as potable. While public water supplies in New York and Boston have been recognized for their taste, most tap water leaves something to be desired. The American Water Works Association has been providing guidance to city leaders, communities and businesses to invest in infrastructure and also improve taste. Setting standards for palatability or even providing low-cost water filters could encourage drinking more from the tap.
To achieve noticeable behavior changes, water must be as aggressively marketed as sugar-sweetened beverages. Laudable actions in this regard include First Lady Michelle Obama’s “Drink Up” campaign that promotes drinking water, the “Soda Free Summer” campaign in Alameda County, Calif., and the “Pouring on the Pounds” effort in New York City. These movements not only promote greater water consumption, they also educate the public on the harmful effects of sugary drinks.
Economic reasons can influence behavior too. Reducing sugary drink consumption will unleash huge public health and financial benefits. Increasing water consumption will help maintain these effects, helping Americans live healthier, more productive lives.