Societies can effectively and fairly reduce obesity by regulating and discouraging the consumption of sugary drinks, argues a piece in PLOS Medicine, and yet they have so far failed to do so. David Studdert and colleagues at Stanford lay out lessons learned from a decade of attempts, and how future efforts can do better.
Sugar sweetened drinks “are a substantial, preventable contributor to the global burden of obesity and associated health conditions,” the authors note. Yet efforts to reduce their consumption have been fiercely opposed by industry and industry-funded pressure groups. The authors show how the door remains open to improving public health without unwarranted intrusions into personal freedoms, particularly through targeted protection for children and other vulnerable groups.
“Although policy ‘nudges’ have become fashionable,” they argue, “there are dangers in treading too lightly.” They point out the ways in which half-hearted attempts at regulation can be too small to offer persuasive health benefits, but still big enough to attract objections. “Industry opposition will come whether the intervention is modest or aggressive, but should be easier to combat if officials can show their policy is effective.”
Well-funded and well-organised, the manufacturers of sugary sweetened drinks have thus far been successful at fighting regulations aimed at protecting consumers, the authors note: “In its nuanced understanding (and manipulation) of public attitudes, the food and beverage industry has kept several steps ahead of policy makers.” Those wishing to promote public health must fight back “in a way that is articulately and widely communicated. Finding public health law’s sweet spot requires regulatory approaches that are capable both of achieving measurable improvements to public health and of winning victories in courts of law and public opinion.”