Limiting sugary drinks can make a difference in children’s health

By Patty Hayes, Director of Public Health – Seattle & King County

Limiting sugary drinks are an important step for public health and particularly for the health of children and youth. All children deserve to grow up healthy, but children today could be the first generation to live shorter lives than their parents. This is, in part, due to the increase in preventable illnesses such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol and diabetes – diseases that used to only affect adults. Forty percent of all children are predicted to develop diabetes in their lifetime.

Why sugary drinks?
Added sugars can harm health. So why focus on sugary drinks instead of all products with added sugar? Sugary drinks are the single greatest source of added sugar in our diet, representing half of all added sugars we consume. For teens’ diets, sugary drinks are the top calorie source – adding 226 calories per day. Drinking one sugary drink every day, and not cutting back on calories elsewhere, can lead to weight gain up to 15 pounds over three years.

  • Drinking just one to two 12-oz sugary drinks per day can increase the risk of developing diabetes by 26% and the risk of developing high blood pressure by 12%.
  • Sugary drinks are uniquely harmful because they are a prime source of extra calories that can contribute to weight gain, but have little to no nutritional value.
  • Sugary drinks don’t make you feel full. As Healthy Food America explains, when sugar is delivered in a liquid form, it bypasses the body’s defense against consuming too many calories.

The impact on kids
Consuming too many calories with little to no nutritional value can be especially detrimental to young people. Health conditions in childhood predict health in adulthood. Children at an unhealthy weight experience health consequences during childhood and are more likely to be at an unhealthy weight as adults and suffer long-term health consequences.Capture 3

Locally, sugary drinks are taking a toll
One in four young people in King County drink soda daily. That’s the equivalent of two pounds of sugar each month from soda alone. And we see the impact on health:

  • 12% of low-income 4 year-olds are obese.
  • One in five young people in King County are either overweight or obese.

As my colleague, our local health officer, Dr. Jeff Duchin points out, “We use many tools to help communities stay healthy – from education about health risks (like warning labels) to regulations like automobile speed limits and seat belt use. Putting a price on harmful products is a strategy that has been used successfully for other important health issues, like tobacco use, resulting in improved health and saved lives.”

Promoting healthier choices
Seattle now joins other cities around the country and in Mexico with a sugary drink tax. In 2014, Berkeley, California, passed the first significant tax on sugary drinks in the U.S. A study found that unhealthy sugary drink sales declined by ten percent while sales of healthier beverages rose significantly and overall beverage sales went up.

In Mexico, after implementing the tax, public awareness of the harms of sugary drinks increased to 52% of the population. And, the tax in Philadelphia is expected to prevent 36,000 cases of obesity and 2,280 cases of diabetes each year.

Our youth are taking action locally
Our young people are doing the best they can to resist powerful marketing by the beverage industry. Beverage companies in the U.S. spent nearly a half billion dollars on marketing aimed directly at youth ages 2–17.

Locally, our public health department has partnered with community organizations through our Partnership to Improve Community Health to support efforts to increase options for healthy choices. For example, students in area high schools are working to get water bottle filling stations installed in their schools. They have designed creative educational campaigns to encourage their peers to quench their thirst with water, not sugar.

It is through these community actions that we can ensure all young people have the opportunity to live healthier lives.