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Convincing Clients That Soda Is the New Tobacco

Health professionals compare the threat from obesity, sugar, and soda to the dangers of tobacco. But here’s the difference: Everybody knows that cigarettes cause cancer. Confusion and ignorance still persist when it comes to connecting soda consumption to chronic health problems like diabetes.

A community health center in the Bronx set out to make a difference in how their patients think about sugar-sweetened drinks by becoming a “sugar-free beverage zone,” a policy encouraged by the American Medical Association for hospitals, schools, and health centers. That means sugar-sweetened beverages, including soda, energy drinks, sweetened juices, and presweetened coffee drinks, cannot be sold or consumed onsite. Banning the drinks for everyone on the premises allows staff to serve as good role models without singling out or stigmatizing anyone for personal choices.

Before creating the zone, a research team led by Professor Chris Palmedo (Graduate School of Public Health & Health Policy) held focus groups with patients and staff. The resulting dialogue was “analogous to discourse around tobacco,” Palmedo wrote in the American Journal of Public Health. Participants talked about “trying to quit” drinking soda and “expressed difficulty breaking the habit while maintaining social connections.” Researchers also encountered questions like this: “Is brown soda less healthy than clear soda? Is ginger ale healthier than other soda?”

“Can you imagine a group of people today asking those kinds of questions about tobacco? It might have happened in the 1960s or 1970s, but thanks to years of public health initiatives, the harms of smoking are now well understood,” Palmedo wrote. In contrast, people are not “receiving the critical information they needed about the toxic effects” of sugar-sweetened beverages.

Palmedo said providing basic information through conversations, signs, and other printed material, along with making alternative beverages like coffee, tea, and water available, are all key to any sugar-sweetened beverage ban. Public health leaders, he added, should embrace “institution-wide bans backed with evidence-based communications. It may be intended for the children, but everyone will benefit.”

In addition to his editorial in American Journal of Public Health, Palmedo, along with co-author Lauren Gordon, also detailed the clinic’s efforts in an article in PLOS ONE.