WA Kids are drinking less sugary drinks, but there’s more work to be done

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SEATTLE — “Sugary drinks are, and added sugar in general, are the new tobacco.”

That’s Dr. Jim Krieger talking about the problem he sees with soda and other sugar-laden drinks. Here in Washington, and especially King County, things are looking down, and that’s a good thing. A new survey shows consumption of sugary drinks in public schools in the county is down

Krieger is executive director of Healthy Food America and the former chief of the Chronic Disease and Injury Prevention section at Seattle/King County Public Health. The data his organization discusses comes from Health Youth Survey which spoke with eighth, tenth and twelfth graders about if they drank sugary drinks and how much.

The data showed that consumption at King County schools went down. The survey asked the students what they had to drink over the seven days prior. Comparing those answer to a similar survey done back in 2006, 49% fewer students say they drank a sugary drink that the students a decade ago. Across the whole state of Washington, 44% fewer students said they had a soda or other sugar-laden drink

Dr. Krieger says there are a number of reasons at play. The key is the availability of the sugary drinks. “It was easier for the students to make healthier choices, to drink water for example instead of sugary drinks because sugary drinks were just less available,” said Jim Krieger, MD, MPH.

How schools meet nutritional guidelines are governed by in part, the federal government’s Smart Snacks program. It requires schools that have vending machines to stock healthier drinks like milk or water. Some schools may simply decide to get rid of vending machines altogether. The requirements for elementary schools, middle schools, and high schools are different. You can get a full listing here.

Dr, Krieger says policy changes working to improve the health of kids are helping. It’s not just limiting these drinks or making sure healthy products are available, to taxing sugary drinks like Seattle has done.

“The majority of people in Seattle support taxing sugary drinks because they think it’s the right thing to do to protect the health of their children,” said Krieger.

Taxes don’t remove the choice. Higher prices may make kids think twice about what they’re buying.

“Youth are particularly price-sensitive, more so than adults, so if the price of a sugary drink goes up because of a tax, consumption will decline substantially among youth.”

But Healthy Food America’s data isn’t all positive. Consumption of soda, sports drinks, fruit drinks, energy drinks, and sweet teas going down, but the decline appears to be plateauing compared to bigger drops from 2000-2008.

“That’s concerning,” said Krieger. “I think we have a lot more work to do both in school but also, especially outside of school to continue to drive down the consumption of a product that causes diabetes, obesity, and heart disease.”

Kids themselves may be the answer.

“Kids don’t like feeling people are manipulating them and when they find out how the industry is trying to manipulate them through their marketing practices, for example, that really gets their attention and they become really interested in figuring out what they can do to counter that.”

The Truth Campaign has been taking on the tobacco industry for years. Their ads have enlisted younger people to help turn kids away from smoking or using other tobacco products.

Dr. Krieger says the drink industry is aggressively marketing sports and energy drinks to kids, especially youth of color, which is driving consumption. Krieger agrees that a version of the Truth Campaign could help in Healthy Food America’s push to lower the amount of sugary drinks kids drink in and out of school.

For now, HFA is continuing its work to counter the marketing from the drink industry. Dr. Krieger says that policies restricting access to these drinks, higher taxes, and education are continuing to be effective in fighting what he says is a true public health crisis.