Soda and Teen Violence

What do you think of when you hear the word soda? Maybe sugar or obesity come to mind, but weapons and violence might not be the first, or even last, thing on that list. You are not alone. So, after reading a few headlines claiming “Drinking Soda May Cause Teen Violence” or something similar, I knew I had to get my hands on the latest study from the Harvard School of Public Health linking soda to teen violence. Could this really be the case?

Unlikely.

The study, published in Injury Prevention, examined the relationship between soda consumption and violence among teens in the Boston Public School system. It was based on the Boston Youth Survey (BYS) conducted biennially for 9-12th graders in Boston public schools. The survey includes questions on soda consumption, alcohol and tobacco use, family engagement, and various acts of violence When the researchers analyzed the data, they found teens consuming soda regularly were more likely to be violent and/or carry a weapon, and the more they drank, the stronger the association. Their conclusions:

“…for Boston high school students, there is a strong, significant association between carbonated non-diet soft drink consumption and the perpetration of violence against siblings, against peers and against dates.”

I had the opportunity to speak to Sara Solnick, head economist and researcher on the study. “Youth violence is a very complicated problem and if we want to understand it then we need to know everything that influences it. In the study, we came across a factor [soda] that has not gotten a lot of attention,” Solnick said.

However, she emphasized that based on this study alone, “We cannot conclude that there is a cause and effect relationship.”

In other words, this study does not prove that soda causes violence – a far cry from many headlines covering the topic.

So what should we learn from this study? That there could be an interesting tie, and one that definitely deserves more research.

Right now though, there are multiple limitations to the study that cannot be overlooked. One of the biggest: the lack of data on socioeconomic status. In addition, no other parts of the diet were studied, making it hard to pinpoint soda as a single contributor to violent acts. Also, no data was gathered on caffeine in the soda, which could be a big part of the equation.

Violence is a complicated issue with multiple influencing factors and based on this study alone, the conclusion that drinking soda causes violence is not accurate. What we do know is that soda provides no additional nutritional benefits, adds to excess calorie consumption, and has been linked to obesity. Those are real reasons to limit soda consumption — violence prevention in teens is not.

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    These “strong correlation” studies typically have the potential cause-effect relationship reversed.

    It is absurd to consider that soda could ever result in increased incidence of teen violence.

    Rather, it is perfectly natural to see how those prone to the lifestyle that leads to teen violence also have poor access to fresh, highly nutritional food and drink.