How one Maryland county flipped public perception of sugary drinks on its head

Our relationship with sugar is deeply ingrained in our culture in all the ways that unhealthy relationships usually are: we’re dependent, despite the fact that we know it’s bad for us. And even though we know we should, it feels impossible to walk away.

In fact, some people would argue it’s impossible to change Americans’ tangled relationship with sugar. To those people, I say, you underestimate people’s power to change.

Just look at what we’ve done with tobacco. It used to be an accepted and ubiquitous vice. Even when the general public understood it was bad for them, they still took up smoking. Then, some concerted campaigns were deployed to reshape public perception of smoking. And finally, the tides turned. Now smoking rates are on a steady decline and it has almost universally lost its luster.

Sugar is just as insidious as tobacco, and its damaging health effects are just as lethal — if not more so. But the good news is, we’re just as capable of shifting our relationship with sugar as we were with tobacco.

Need proof? Check out the results of a community campaign aimed at reducing sugary drink consumption in Howard County, Maryland. After 3-years of effort, the county has seen supermarket sales of sodas drop by 20 percent.

The Howard County Unsweetened campaign used television ads, billboards, direct mail, and social media — as well as an online tool call the “Better Beverage Finder” — to raise awareness of the connection between sugar-sweetened beverages and the diseases they cause. (Obesity, diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and 11 types of cancer…but who’s counting?)

While being steered away from sugary drinks, people were encouraged instead to get all their fluids from “better beverages” — water or unsweetened tea, for instance. Notably absent were diet sodas.

Which is great, because chemical-laden diet sodas have no place in a healthy diet.

In addition to the advertising outreach, the campaign also engaged other key players. Thirteen health practices took part in an effort by the American Academy of Pediatrics to improve how they approach childhood obesity. Marketers distributed healthy drinks at sporting and other events. A coalition of 50 community organizations worked to improve vending-machine choices and educate their members. Kids were invited to enter a contest for the best documentary about sugary drinks.

But perhaps most importantly, laws were changed. Campaign members managed to persuade lawmakers to get vending machines out of middle schools altogether. Plus, they championed laws requiring all foods sold in schools to meet national nutrition standards (how was that not already happening?).

And as a result?

The campaign didn’t just slash soda consumption. Juice consumption plummeted too. Unfortunately, no significant change was seen in sports drink consumption, so that’s an area where they might want to put more effort in future outreach. Because sports drinks are just as bad as soda. Maybe worse, considering their brilliant marketing has convinced consumers that they’re healthy.

When I look at the successes of this campaign, two things stand out to me. One is that it advocated changes starting with preschoolers. Which just proves that it’s never too early to make interventions. As with anything in life, if you learn the right habits when you’re a kid, they’ll stick with you.

In fact, it’s critical to educate children about healthy beverage options as early as possible. Especially considering obesity usually starts to take hold in adolescence, particularly in girls. Which isn’t surprising when you consider that adolescents in this country take in 200-300 calories each day from sugar-sweetened beverages.

This study proves that a multifaceted, aggressive intervention can change how the public sees sugar-sweetened beverages. Another proven approach is taxation, as I have written about in previous articles.

The fact of the matter is, we may have to legislate our way out of this epidemic. But in the meantime, real, lasting changes ALWAYS start at home.