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No reason to delay labeling

Could posting warnings about sugary drinks save lives? Research says yes.

In a recent editorial, The Baltimore Sun questioned the appropriateness of legislation under consideration to require businesses that sell sugary drinks to put up a label warning of potential negative health effects ("Curbing sugary drinks in Baltimore Jan. 12). The editorial does not question the health risks these beverages pose but rather the effectiveness of such labels, the potential burden these requirements would place on businesses in the city and the possibility of negative financial consequences. We would like to offer further evidence to address these concerns.

The first question is: Is there evidence that suggests that labeling can be effective in changing consumer behavior? The answer to this is yes. In fact, several studies of food and beverage labeling conducted here in Baltimore City have demonstrated that identifying healthier foods through shelf labels can increase their frequency of purchase in small corner stores, supermarkets and carryout restaurants. Some people just need a little nudge to help them make the healthy choice the first choice.

Will warning labels work? The answer to this is also yes. There are multiple studies that have shown the effectiveness of such labels on cigarette packs to improve awareness of cancer risk and reducing tobacco use. A recent study by the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine found that parents were significantly less likely to purchase a sugary beverage with a warning label compared to no label at all.

Finally, will warning people about the dangers of sugary beverage consumption be bad for sales? The answer to this is likely no. But this depends on local businesses themselves. Our research has shown that if corner stores and carryouts stock healthier alternatives, then sales of these foods and beverages go up, compensating for reduced sales of less healthy foods and beverages. Environmental changes are needed. Wholesalers and distributors are part of the solution, and we have partnered with them in our ongoing work.

We view the sugary beverage warning label legislation as part of the solution to the epidemic of obesity and chronic disease in Baltimore City. A definite step in the right direction, with minimal risks to local businesses.

Dr. Joel Gittelsohn and Cara Shipley, Baltimore

The writers are, respectively, professor of international health and research program coordinator at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health.

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