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New Study: Teens May be Influenced by Health Warning Labels on Sugary Drinks



Adolescents participating in an online study were up to 16 percentage points less likely to say they would purchase a sugary drink after viewing a health warning label on its packaging than those who did not view a warning label, according to a study published by the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The study is one of the first to look at how sugary drink warning labels may affect adolescent purchasing behavior.

The study, conducted by the Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics at the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania, found that as few as 61 percent of participants said they would purchase a sugary drink after viewing a warning label, compared to 77 percent of participants who would purchase one without viewing a label.  The study also concluded that health warning labels may improve teenagers’ recognition of the sugar content of such beverages, and change their perception that they promote a healthy lifestyle. 

Researchers conducted an online survey of more than 2,000 demographically diverse participants ages 12–18, including an oversampling of Hispanics and African-Americans to reflect the higher-than-average obesity rates among those populations. They analyzed the effects of five different labels—one that displayed calorie content only, and four that displayed variations of warning text—in addition to a control group that saw no label. 

Researchers found that adolescents were least likely to choose a sugary drink after viewing a health warning label that specifically mentioned type 2 diabetes—along with obesity and tooth decay—compared to no label or a label containing calorie information. 

The labels displayed the following messages: 


Compared to the control group that saw no label, adolescents seeing the calorie label chose sugary drinks at a similar rate (77 percent vs. 73 percent). However, adolescents seeing three of the four health warning labels were less likely to choose a sugary drink than the control group, and those seeing the label highlighting the risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and tooth decay chose a sugar-sweetened beverage less often than even those who saw the calorie label (61 percent vs. 73 percent).     

The warning labels also contributed to teenagers’ understanding of the detrimental effects of sugary drinks, with participants viewing the labels indicating they were more likely to understand that these drinks don’t contribute to a healthy lifestyle. When given the option to select beverages that they would be interested in receiving coupons for, participants who viewed warning labels selected fewer sugary drinks compared to no label or a calorie label. Moreover, the study revealed that 62 percent of participants said they’d favor a policy requiring warning labels on sugary drinks. 

This research builds on the results of a study published earlier this year which found that parents who participated in a similar online survey were 20 percentage points less likely to say they would choose a sugary drink for their kids if they viewed a health warning label on its packaging than those who did not.  

Additionally, with the recent guidance from the American Heart Association on the recommended amount of added sugars children should consume, this new study contributes to the growing body of evidence on interventions that may encourage children and families to make healthier beverage choices.