Remember the quaint period in American history when cigarettes were cool?
But in the wake of an overwhelming body of evidence linking smoking to lung cancer, and a damning Surgeon General's report in 1964, explicit warning labels were slapped across cigarette packs starting in 1966. The percentage of adult smokers dropped from over 40% in 1965 to around 15% in 2015 -- a drop that can't completely be explained by Fabio's message that smoking hides a woman's tenderness.
Now that sugar has been dubbed the "new tobacco," similar health-related warning labels have been proposed for sugar-sweetened beverages -- the thinking is that, like with cigarettes, making consumers aware of the risks of excessive sugar consumption will help limit the costs that come with treating a population suffering from high rates of fun sugar-related diseases like obesity and diabetes.
Predictably, there's serious pushback from the beverage industry, but this is one simple way to help America get healthier, lose weight, and save tons of money on long-term health care costs.
Explicit warnings make people aware of sugar dangers
The similarities between tobacco and sugar-sweetened beverages are uncanny. Smoking used to be ubiquitous, with cigarettes available everywhere, just like how cans, bottles, and giant 32oz Big Gulps of soda are now as ingrained in American culture as baseball and questionable fast-food items.
Not only are sugary drinks addictive in their own right, they've also been proven to contribute to obesity, that tiny little health epidemic you've probably heard about -- like how nicotine is addictive, and tobacco usage undeniably leads to lung cancer.
But perhaps the biggest similarity is how aware corporate execs are of the dangers their products pose; so much so, they need to buy off researchers to skew the data. The powers that be at Big Sugar are so eager to convince the public that the sweet stuff is nothing to be worried about, they bribed Harvard researchers to switch the blame for our obesity epidemic to fat. Sounds familiar...
For people who aren't aware of just how detrimental sugary drinks are to their health, or who think all of the media coverage is part of some nanny-state propaganda, a glaring in-your-face warning label may make them think twice before guzzling down 64oz of soda with lunch.
San Francisco wants to start the warning label trend
San Francisco is the first city to attempt a live test of warning labels on sugary drinks. The city proposed an ordinance in 2015 that would require any public advertising for sugary drinks to slap on a not-at-all subtle notice of: "Warning: drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay."
The American Beverage Association and other trade groups are fighting back, having secured a temporary delay in the implementation of the ordinance until an appeals court decides whether it's fair to make companies tell the public of the health risks their products carry.
Considering how effective warning labels are for cigarettes, they're likely to have a major impact on sugar-sweetened beverage sales. The companies themselves seem to think so, as evidenced by the legal battle they're waging in California: An industry that big wouldn't go through such a long, drawn-out process if it didn't think the city ordinance would have a negative impact on its business.
The best part of San Fran kicking it to the beverage manufacturers to issue these warnings in their ads and products? It doesn't cost taxpayers a dime. This is a far cry from obesity itself, which, aside from being a deadly health complication, is also an expensive one. In 2008, health care costs related to obesity cost Americans $147 billion. And an indirect cost of lack of productivity cost employers and companies an estimated $3.38 to $6.38 billion.
Sure, requiring companies to remake all their packaging and redesign ads will be expensive... for the companies. Instead of forcing the people who suffer from the effects of obesity to shoulder the financial burden, placing the responsibility on the causation side may help light a fire under the collective butts of those who produce unhealthy products.
Of course, there will always be those who say that measures like San Francisco's are classic, unnecessary government interference with individual freedom. But, knowing what we know, and considering all the cancer cases we've avoided treating, does anyone blink an eye at cigarette warnings now?
Reducing sugar consumption is still an uphill battle
Americans down a lot of sugar, mostly from sweetened beverages -- the average adult consumes 20tsp a day. Compare that to what the American Heart Association recommends: 6tsp (around 24g) for women and 9tsp(around 36g) for men. Considering a can of Coke has 39g of sugar, it's easy to blow right past the daily recommended intake with just one drink. Obvious warning labels could help people rethink their drink choices, leading to a calorie deficit of at least a couple hundred a day.
Of course, warning labels aren't the only answer, and like with cigarettes, a multi-pronged approach will likely prove the most effective. One other way local governments are trying to defray costs are sugar taxes, which are exactly what they sound like; Philadelphia's tax on sugary beverages is one example of the small, but growing, number of cities that are levying taxes on sugar-sweetened drinks in an effort to deter consumption.
The public didn't go from allowing smoking at virtually every public (and private) place to shaming the few remaining smokers overnight, but the growing awareness of how dangerous the habit is for your health certainly played a role in its declining frequency. And it wasn't because people were reading tobacco health studies for fun.
So, while it may take Americans decades to totally abandon their 200-calories-a-day soda habit, perhaps a blunt warning on sugary beverages would actually help people face this reality, rather than remain ignorant of it.
Everyone's long-term health will be better off.
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