Consumption of sodas and other sugar-sweetened drinks by teens is a nationwide concern. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 80% of teens consume sugar-sweetened beverages every day, and these drinks constitute up to 28% of their total daily calorie intake. Numerous studies have shown that kids who drink sodas are at increased risk of becoming overweight or obese, and of developing conditions like diabetes and heart disease later in life.
In Ohio, teen consumption of sodas was so much higher than in other areas of the country that Dr. Laureen Smith from Ohio State University reported, “Teens that grow up in this region are ultimately more likely to die from cancer, diabetes and heart disease than any other place in the nation, and obesity is the common risk factor for all of those illnesses.”
So she decided to do something about it. Working with her associates at OSU, she developed a 30-day experimental “Sodabriety” program for local Ohio schools that encouraged teens to use peer pressure to encourage healthier habits among their fellow students. The students performed rap songs about the ill effects of sodas, included “sugar facts” in morning school announcements, and developed a “green ribbon” campaign in which ribbons were placed on car antennas as a reminder not to drink sodas for the month. They also developed a slogan for the campaign (“What’s in your cup?”) and provided free bottled water as an alternative to soda.
The campaign led to a significant reduction in the teens’ overall soda consumption. The overall percentage of teens abstaining from sodas increased from 7.2% to 11.8% over the 30 days of the experiment. At the same time, consumption of water increased significantly for 60 days after the program, even though water was not specifically promoted as a substitute for the sodas. As Smith says, “The students’ water consumption before the intervention was lousy. I don’t know how else to say it. But we saw a big improvement in that. And there was a huge reduction in sugar-sweetened beverage consumption. The kids were consuming them fewer days per week and when they were consuming these drinks, they had fewer servings.”
The experiment, in other words, seems to have been a resounding success, and gives us hope that it can be replicated in other areas to help teens work together with school and health officials to bring the same message to other teens. As Smith says, “We’re teaching kids to help themselves, and it’s a really cost-effective way of promoting health and delivering a message… We tend to think first of risky behaviors when we study adolescents, but they do positive things, too. With the right guidance and support, they are powerful influencers. We might as well use peer pressure to our advantage.”