Summary: The Effect of Graphic Warnings on Sugary-Drink Purchasing

How do sugary drinks affect the United States?

  • 63% of youth and 49% of adults drink at least one sugary beverage on a given day.1
  • Sugary drinks are associated with weight gain/obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, kidney diseases, non-alcoholic liver disease, tooth decay and cavities, and gout.1
  • Limiting sugary drink consumption can improve health and decrease susceptibility to disease.

How can we decrease sugary drink purchasing?

Doctoral student Laura Zatz, from the Departments of Nutrition and Social & Behavioral Sciences at the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, along with co-authors from Harvard Business School and Ohio State University, published an engaging multi-part research article in the journal Psychological Science. The publication describes three related studies that test the effectiveness of graphic warning labels for sugary drinks.

In the first study, a field test, the authors monitored the amount of sugary drinks purchased in a hospital when different types of labels were displayed in front of the sugary drinks. After a two-week baseline with no labels, researchers consecutively displayed three types of labels for two weeks each — calorie labels, text warning labels, or graphic warning labels — with two-week “washout” periods in between. The authors showed that graphic warning labels were associated with decreased sugary beverage purchasing during the period when the labels were displayed; no significant decreases were seen when calorie labels or text warning labels were displayed. The second study was an online randomized experiment to explore the psychological mechanisms behind graphic warning labels. Compared to the no-label condition, participants in the graphic warning label condition reported greater negative affect, increased consideration of health, and increased intention to purchase water instead of soda. Finally, the third study, a nationally representative survey, helped determine individuals’ opinions on graphic warning labels for sugary beverages. A smaller percentage of people were in favor of graphic warning labels compared to calorie or text warning labels; however, when respondents were shown the effectiveness of the graphic labels, the percentage of people supporting graphic labels jumped, and became equivalent to the percentage in favor of text warning and calorie labels. Together, these three studies are first steps in determining the effectiveness of graphic warning labels for sugary drinks, and in combination with further research, can provide evidence to assist policymakers in implementing changes to encourage more health-conscious beverage selections.2

Interested in learning more? Click here for a link to the full-text article.


  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2017, April 7). Get the facts: sugar-sweetened beverages and consumption. Retrieved September 10, 2018, from
  2. Donnelly GE, Zatz LY, Svirsky D, John LK. The effect of graphic warnings on sugary-drink purchasing. Psychological Science. 2018 Aug; 29(8):1321-1333. PMCID: PMC6088502.