Potential unintended consequences of graphic warning labels on sugary drinks: do they promote obesity stigma?

Obesity science & practice. 2019;5(4):333-341
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Consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is associated with increased body weight and poor nutrition and health outcomes, including Type 2 diabetes and coronary heart disease. The aim of this study was to test the hypothesis that the graphic warning promotes weight bias (Study 1) and is also viewed as stigmatizing by people with overweight and obesity (Study 2). Study 1 Participants were randomly allocated to one of two conditions: a warning label condition (n = 324) or a control condition (n = 357). Results indicate that participants who were presented with the graphic warning label were more likely to intend to purchase water (instead of the soda) than participants who were presented with the standard label. Study 2 Participants (n=561) were randomly assigned to one of two conditions – overweight or obese. Results show that the majority of participants rated the warning label as personally stigmatizing. Moreover, after being exposed to the label, the participants experienced worse mood. Authors conclude that it is important for policymakers to strike a balance between the benefits and costs of public health interventions.


Introduction: Public health interventions need to balance the benefits with any potential harms. One proposed intervention for reducing sugar-sweetened beverage consumption involves placing graphic warning labels on products and advertisements. A recent study found that a graphic warning label that contained negative imagery of obesity reduced purchases of sugar-sweetened beverages. However, these labels may also promote obesity stigma, which is concerning given that weight stigma is associated with harmful health consequences including weight gain and increased risk of mortality. Methods: In Study 1 (  = 681), participants viewed a standard soda label or the graphic warning label online and then completed measures of disgust and prejudice towards people with obesity. In Study 2 (  = 506), participants who identified as having overweight or obesity viewed the graphic warning label online before or after completing measures of mood and state self-esteem. Results: In Study 1, participants who had viewed the graphic warning label reported higher disgust and weight bias. In Study 2, the majority of participants perceived the warning label to be stigmatizing, and participants displayed worse mood and, through this, lower self-esteem after viewing the label. Conclusions: Although the graphic warning label has been found to reduce sugary drink purchases, it also promotes obesity stigma and is perceived as stigmatizing by individuals with overweight and obesity. Given that weight stigma predicts harmful health and well-being consequences, the benefits of graphic warning labels need to be balanced against the potential costs.

Lifestyle medicine

Fundamental Clinical Imbalances : Structural
Patient Centred Factors : Triggers/Weight stigma
Environmental Inputs : Diet ; Mind and spirit
Personal Lifestyle Factors : Nutrition
Functional Laboratory Testing : Not applicable

Methodological quality

Jadad score : Not applicable
Allocation concealment : Not applicable
Publication Type : Journal Article