NEW ORLEANS — A new study indicates that educating the public about the health impact of sugar-sweetened beverages can lead to dramatic changes in customers’ buying habits.

Policy changes, coupled with community education efforts, led to a decline of nearly 20 percent of sales in Howard County, Maryland, according to research presented Sunday at the American Heart Association’s Scientific Sessions 2016.

Researchers examined the sales of sugar-sweetened beverages; including soda, sports drinks, energy drinks, fruit drinks and flavored water and teas. Advocates say such drinks are among the leading sources of empty calories for both children and adults. Meanwhile, over-consumption of sugar is associated with obesity, an increased risk of heart disease, diabetes, tooth decay and other health issues.


Marlene B. Schwartz, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut. Photo by Sean Dreher

“The national trend is certainly moving in the direction of people decreasing consumption,” said Marlene B. Schwartz, Ph.D., director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at the University of Connecticut, who led the study. “Obviously it would be good to continue to track this, but I’m confident we will continue to see this sustained lowered level.”

The study reviewed the Howard County campaign launched in 2012 by the Horizon Foundation and several community partners.

Researchers compared weekly beverage sales of top-selling brands from 15 supermarkets in Howard County with a matched set of 17 supermarkets in southeastern Pennsylvania, controlling for marketing influences such as product prices, to determine the campaign’s impact.

The study did not have sales data from non-supermarket vendors, such as convenience stores, and only included the top-selling brands sold rather than all brands sold.

Among the findings: sales of sugar-sweetened soda fell by almost 20 percent by volume in Howard County but remained stable in comparison stores; sales of fruit-flavored beverages with added sugars fell about 15 percent and sales of 100 percent juice fell 15 percent.

The researchers note that this is the first study to use objective retail sales data to measure the effectiveness of a campaign to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks.

While the study did not identify one portion of the campaign that was particularly effective, Schwartz believes the multi-faceted approach is necessary to effect the most change.

“When you’re looking at population level changes, it’s not like one thing is going to affect everybody,” she said. “You do have to try lots of different things to try to maximize affecting that population level.”

Just last week, voters in four U.S. cities passed taxes on sugary drinks, while Chicago’s Cook County Board of Commissioners also voted to add a tax on sugary beverages, such as sodas, flavored teas and sports drinks, as well as diet colas and other drinks containing artificial sweeteners.

Berkeley, California, the Navajo Nation and Philadelphia all had previously introduced sugar-sweetened beverage taxes to reduce consumption.