Health warnings should be displayed on sugary drinks in a bid to make them as socially unacceptable as cigarettes, a leading public health figure has said.
Professor Simon Capewell, professor of public health at the University of Liverpool, called for the UK government to follow the example of legislation under consideration in California, proposing warnings to consumers about the contribution of fizzy drinks to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.
Writing on the British Medical Journal website, Prof Capewell said a third of children and two-thirds of adults are now overweight or obese in the UK.
Halving US and UK children’s sugar-sweetened drink consumption could mean a 50-100 kcal reduction in energy intake a day, perhaps arresting or even reversing the current increases in obesity, he added.
He highlighted a recent European study showing adults who drank more than one can of sugary fizzy drink a day had a 22 per cent higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes than those who drank less than a can a month. He said there was public support for warnings about added sugar as it was “progressively demonised”.
He added: “Many other potentially harmful products already carry effective health warnings. For example, insecticides and other toxic products have long carried labels warning users to take extreme care.
“Similarly, cigarettes have gone from being socially acceptable to quite unacceptable after warning labels were implemented. The effectiveness of tobacco warnings and plain packaging is now accepted by almost everyone not linked to the industry.”
The call for labelling comes after research from the University of Glasgow earlier this year showed people underestimate sugar levels in drinks which are perceived to be “healthy”. While many people overestimated the sugar content in fizzy drinks, they “significantly misjudged” the levels in milkshakes, smoothies and some fruit juices.
Gavin Partington, British Soft Drinks Association director general, said trying to blame one set of products for the “complex” problem of obesity was “misguided”. He added that soft drinks have full nutrition labelling, including calorie content.
He said: “Obesity is a far more complex problem than Professor Capewell’s simplistic approach implies and trying to blame one set of products is misguided, particularly when they comprise a mere 3 per cent of calories in the average diet.
“Manufacturers have been taking steps to reduce the calorie content of their drinks.”