Fat-Shaming ‘Warnings’ On Sugary Drinks Won’t Make Kids Healthy

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sugar-in-a-bowlWhen it comes to health, we’re continually looking for a bad guy. First it was fat, then carbohydrates, and now we’re zeroing in on added sugars. The Santa Cruz Sentinel reports California state Senator Bill Monning reintroduced legislation for the third time last week that would require any beverage with more than 75 calories per 12 ounces to carry a warning label that says:

“STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.”

Monning claims the label will make parents think twice about buying soda and other sugary beverages for their children. Similarly, The Guardian reports both Germany and the UK have introduced legislation that would ban the sale of sugar-laden energy drinks to minors, citing arguments that these drinks contain an addictive amount of sugar and caffeine and contribute to obesity.

Policing food and drinks is a tricky business. One can make a pretty good case that soda, energy drinks, and other sweetened beverages are terrible for our bodies and shouldn’t be marketed to our kids. The Guardian post about the UK’s proposed ban on energy drinks cites research that found some energy drinks contain as much as 20 teaspoons of sugar — twice the amount an adult should consume in a day. That fact in itself is shocking. Is it worth banning their sale to minors, though? Or, in the case of California, is it enough to warrant a safety warning?

It depends.

If a ban on the sale of energy drinks to minors came to the United States, I would support it. Energy drinks are marketed as performance enhancing. They target youth, sometimes with dangerous consequences. A 2011 report found that consumption of energy drinks sends thousands of people to the emergency room each year, contributing to 16,000 visits in 2008 alone. It’s a small percentage when compared to the total number of people who consume energy drinks regularly, but it’s significant when considering the way they’re marketed and to whom. If our goal is to protect kids, setting an age limit at which they’re allowed to make an informed decision to consume a proven dangerous substance seems logical to me.

The trouble comes when these “safety” measures are actually rooted in fat-shaming. I suspect that’s a reason California’s warning label legislation continually fails. Though the proposed ban on energy drinks relies on similar statistics about sugar and its contributions to obesity and diabetes, there are real differences in the way the policies seek to combat the problem. Where one restricts the sale of beverages to those who are most vulnerable to their marketing and ill effects — children — and leaves adults to make their own choices, the other seeks to legislate behavior through shame.

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