Two years after Boston schools prohibited the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages like sodas and sports drinks, local high school students were consuming significantly fewer sugary drinks, according to a new study published in Preventing Chronic Disease. In contrast, the average consumption of sugary beverages did not decline among teens nationwide. This is the first major study to show a significant decline in consumption of unhealthy beverages following a school policy change.
Beginning in the 2004–05 school year, the Boston School Committee prohibited public schools in the city from selling soft drinks, fruit drinks and sports drinks anywhere in school buildings or on campus. Researchers tracked sugar-sweetened beverage consumption among students in grades 9–12 for two years and found a significant decrease—from 1.71 average servings per day in 2004 to 1.38 servings in 2006. This reduction, roughly 45 fewer calories per day, included students’ total daily consumption of such drinks, both during and outside of the school day. A serving was defined as one can or glass, with a 20-ounce bottle counting as two servings.
“This study shows that a very simple policy change can have a big impact on student behavior,” said Angie Cradock, Sc.D., senior research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health and the study’s lead author. “It also shows that when students couldn’t get these unhealthy beverages in school, they didn’t necessarily buy them elsewhere.”
Researchers analyzed nationwide data and found no comparable decrease in teens’ daily consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, in contrast to the decrease they saw in Boston. The authors concluded that the decreased consumption among Boston students indicates that prohibiting the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages on school campuses may be a promising strategy to reduce unnecessary caloric intake.
“The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has said that young people should drink fewer sugar-sweetened beverages and that limiting access to such beverages in school is an important strategy for preventing childhood obesity,” said C. Tracy Orleans, Ph.D., senior scientist at the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which funded the study. “This study provides important evidence that removing these unhealthy drinks from schools creates a healthier environment for students.”
The removal of sugar-sweetened beverages from Boston schools was just the first step in a broader city campaign. In April 2011, Boston Mayor Thomas Menino announced an effort to stop selling sugary drinks on any city property.
Previous research shows that the average teenager consumes roughly 300 calories per day (or 13 percent of total daily calories) from sugar-sweetened beverages or fruit juices. Research also shows that drinking sugary beverages leads to higher overall caloric intake and greater risk for being overweight or obese. Sugar-sweetened beverages have come under particular scrutiny, especially among advocates for children’s health who are working to address the nation’s obesity epidemic. In 2004, the American Academy of Pediatrics recommended that school districts restrict the sale of sugary beverages to prevent health problems.
To assess the impact of the policy change on students citywide, researchers surveyed more than 1,000 students at 17 Boston high schools. To compare Boston students with adolescents nationwide, they used data from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey for 2003–04 and 2005–06. Those data showed that teens nationwide consumed 1.74 servings of sugary drinks per day in 2003–04, and 1.66 servings in 2005–06, a small but statistically insignificant decline.
About the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation
The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation focuses on the pressing health and health care issues facing our country. As the nation's largest philanthropy devoted exclusively to improving the health and health care of all Americans, the Foundation works with a diverse group of organizations and individuals to identify solutions and achieve comprehensive, meaningful and timely change. For nearly 40 years the Foundation has brought experience, commitment and a rigorous, balanced approach to the problems that affect the health and health care of those it serves. When it comes to helping Americans lead healthier lives and get the care they need, the Foundation expects to make a difference.