Letter Asks Supermarkets to Limit Soda Sales

A public letter from health groups across the country, including Boston, urges retailers to discourage customers from buying sugary drinks.

Soda aisle

Public health groups want to stop soda sales. Photo via Shutterstock

You’re waiting in line, seemingly forever, at the supermarket. A cooler full of sodas, juices, and smoothies catches your eye. Why not grab one while you wait? It seems harmless, just a way to pass the time—but a group of public health organizations, including the Boston Public Health Commission (BPHC), say that’s not the case.

More than a dozen organizations across the country wrote a public letter urging retailers to make sugary drinks less tempting to consumers, a move that comes after a string of attacks on the soda industry like Mayor Bloomberg’s attempted Big Gulp ban and a petition filed with the FDA asking for more regulation about sugar content in beverages. The letter cites sugary drinks’ contribution to the obesity epidemic and suggests everything from removing sodas from those bored-in-line coolers to posting health information about various beverages in the soft drink aisle and promoting lower-calorie options. The letter says:

With supermarkets selling the lion’s share of sugar drinks, your company and others clearly have an opportunity to promote your customers’ health by encouraging customers to switch from high-calorie to low-calorie drinks. Possibilities include limiting sugar drinks in check-out aisles, posting signs in the soft-drink aisle to encourage people to switch to drinks with few or no calories, featuring primarily non- and low-sugar soft drinks at end caps and in “spectacular” displays, giving greater prominence to lower- calorie drinks in your advertising, and adjusting prices to encourage the purchase of non- and low-caloric drinks.

Anne McHugh, director of the Chronic Disease Prevention and Control Division at BPHC, says obesity weighs heavily on her group’s mind.” At the BPHC we’re very concerned with obesity being one of the leading causes of chronic disease and unnecessary disease and early death,” McHugh says. “One of the key drivers of that is excess sugar in our diet, and sugar-sweetened beverages are the single leading cause of empty calories in our diets.”

McHugh says targeting supermarkets is key because limiting sugary beverage sales in vending machines and restaurants is only a small piece of the battle—most purchases are still made in grocery stores. “Really where people buy most of their sugary drinks are in supermarkets, and so we’re concerned about how we can make an impact there,” she says. “And we think that supermarkets want to be good corporate citizens, and there are ways that supermarkets can make some changes that won’t affect their profits.”

The BPHC will invite Boston supermarkets to speak with the organization and offer feedback, and McHugh says she welcomes the opportunity to strategize with retailers and is hopeful that they can reach a compromise.

And though we’re all for limiting the intake of sugary drinks and cutting down on America’s weight problem, asking stores to stop selling some of their most profitable items seems like an uphill battle, and one that would be unnecessary if people were more willing to make smart diet choices on their own.