Why Warning Labels for Sugary Foods Make Sense

The new face of your favorite soda?
The new face of your favorite soda?

The new face of Coke?Legislators in California and New York are currently considering warning labels for sugary drinks.

If it sounds like overbearing nanny-state legislation -- and if you live in Texas, it very well might -- recall how warning labels have contributed in part to a massive reduction in smoking and the staggering social costs associated with the habit.

And it turns out the medical costs associated with diabetes, a disease that is caused in part by the consumption of excess sugar, are just as high as those of tobacco-related health care expenditures. In 2012, Americans spent $176 billion in direct medical costs associated with diabetes, making the cost of adding a warning label to drinks that can cause the disease seem like a wise investment. Still, it seems a little weird to think about a warning label on that seemingly innocuous as Dr Pepper, right?

Think about how cigarettes were viewed by the public just a few decades ago. Smoking used to be considered sexy, whether the haze wafted above rumpled sheets or from beneath the boardroom door. But then we got a closer look at emphysema and suddenly the burning tobacco didn't look so hot. And while every smoker pitched a fit about quitting or even being asked to step outside to light up, we got through it all and have achieved a new norm.

Warning labels prick up our self-preservation receptors; they make us nervous, and they work. And if warning labels can reduce American consumption of sugar, and theoretically reduce the costs of illnesses associated with excess sugar consumption, then why not?

We could even have some fun with it. In Australia and other countries, tobacco warning labels have been taken to the extreme, including graphic images of cancerous tumors, breathless corpses, creepy blind eyeballs and other images that are literally difficult to look at. On his show Last Week Tonight, John Oliver recently covered big tobacco's efforts to remove these labeling requirements because they've ostensibly proven effective. So what if we used similar tactics of sugary beverages? How about an ominous syringe ready to administer a dose of insulin?

Of course, just as with tobacco, any laws requiring warning labels will be met with pushback from the soda companies. A previous proposed law to limit the size of beverages in New York was shot down by a judge just before the rule was implemented. But if you tally the social costs of excess sugar consumption in the states, and then you look the positive impact these labels have had with other products that have proven to be detrimental to our health, it gets harder to argue against them.

What's so bad about putting a label on a beverage so we actually think about the consequences of our choices every time we mindless twist the cap on a bottle of sugary drink? Sure, Life Tastes Good, but it tastes even better without diabetes.


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