Soda tax or no, Americans aren't drinking as many sugary beverages, study finds

Philadelphia has drawn national attention for its sweetened-drinks tax and how it is cutting into sales of the beverages. But a new study finds that all across the nation, people have been drinking less soda and sugary beverages for years, a change that could be helping some manage their weight.

Researchers at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health have found that between 2003 and 2014, consumption of sweet drinks fell for both children and adults. Meanwhile, obesity in the general population is leveling off and actually declining in children 2 to 5 years of age, according to the study published in the journal Obesity on Tuesday.

But use of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages remains high among adolescents, young adults, blacks, Mexican-Americans and non-Mexican Hispanics.

The study, which analyzed data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES), held no surprises for lead author Sara Bleich, a professor of public health policy.

“Sugary beverage consumption is going down overall,” she said in an interview, and that’s leading to a general cut in fluid intake as people cut out drinks they used to enjoy solely for their taste, like soda, and not to satisfy thirst, like water.

The authors looked at data collected from 18,600 children ages 2 to 19 and 27,652 adults, age 20 and older. Participants were asked about their consumption of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages, as well as 100 percent juice, artificially-sweetened beverages, milk or flavored milk, unsweetened coffee or tea, alcohol and water in the last 24 hours.

In 2003-2004, 79.7 percent of children reported having a sugary drink in a 24-hour period. A decade later, 60.7 percent of the children – a 19 percent drop – said they had done so. For adults there was an 11.5 percent drop – from 61.5 percent to 50 percent  – over the same period.

Per capita, the decline meant children were drinking 92.1 fewer calories on average a day, while adults were foregoing an average of 52.4 calories.

“It sends a good message that the efforts to reduce sugary beverage consumption seems to be taking hold, at least among the general population,” Bleich said.

The study presents an opportunity for a more targeted public health campaign aimed at the demographics that still consume large amounts of sugary beverages, she said. One example: looking at the supply chain and how to change it, such as by offering water instead of sweetened sports drinks to student athletes, she said.

The report cited beverage taxes as a successful public health effort that helps reduce consumption — especially among price-sensitive consumers — but did not break out data for Philadelphia or any of the other jurisdictions that have passed taxes on soda and other sweetened beverages.

While the 1.5-cent-per-ounce beverage tax in Philadelphia has residents drinking fewer sweetened beverages, it has not hurt the economy by suppressing total store sales, Bleich and colleagues reported in an earlier study.

Bleich said the team has a major evaluation of how the tax is affecting beverage consumption in Philadelphia underway and hopes to release the results in the spring.