A proposal to put "cigarette-style" warnings on sugary drinks in a bid to combat obesity, type 2 diabetes and poor dental health is gaining support from around New Zealand.

The New Zealand Dental Association (NZDA) is pushing for graphic images of rotten teeth to be put on fizzy drink packaging.

But the Beverage Council says the proposal is ridiculous and "alarmist".

NZDA spokesman Dr Rob Beaglehole said dentists supported the measure because they were confronted daily with the unnecessary pain and suffering caused by sugary drink consumption.


"[Fizzy drinks] are highly linked to tooth decay, obesity and type 2 diabetes. You cannot exercise your way out of tooth decay epidemic."

A National Nutrition survey by Otago University and the Ministry of Health in 2009 found a quarter of young adults' (under 30) sugar consumption came from sugary drinks.

The World Health Organisation recommends adults consume a maximum of 6tsp (25g) of sugar a day. A 600ml bottle of Coca-Cola has nearly 13tsp (64g).

A 4-year-old New Zealand child has dental treatment for severe tooth decay. Photo / Supplied by New Zealand Dental Association
A 4-year-old New Zealand child has dental treatment for severe tooth decay. Photo / Supplied by New Zealand Dental Association

However, Beaglehole said Kiwi consumers did not realise how much sugar was in fizzy drinks because of how nutritional labels and serving size indicators were presented on packaging.

"At the moment you need a university degree and a calculator to work out how many teaspoons of sugar there are in some of these drinks."

During the 2015/2016 year, 29,000 children aged under 12 had one or more tooth removed due to severe cavities and infection, according to a report commissioned by Child Poverty Action Group.

The Government needed to step in and regulate sugary drinks as people's health was suffering and fizzy drink manufacturers weren't doing enough, Beaglehole said.

The NZDA would also support written health warnings being put on fizzy drinks, as in California, or an icon on packaging showing the number of teaspoons of sugar in a drink.


University of Otago's Professor Janet Hoek, who has extensively studied tobacco marketing, said putting warnings on sugary drinks would "undoubtedly" help consumers make more informed purchasing choices, as it had done with smoking.

"However, [the warning labels] should be accompanied by other actions, such as increasing the price of sugary drinks and reducing the availability of these products.

"Marketing occurs not only on the can or bottle and, if we want to reduce overall consumption and improve health, we need a comprehensive approach."

Youth smoking rates had fallen dramatically since cigarette packets had graphic warnings added, prices increased and plain packaging introduced, she said.

A survey of 1000 young Australians (18-35) presented at European Congress on Obesity last week predicted sales of sugary drinks would fall by 20 per cent if cigarette-style warnings were rolled out.

Millennials spoken to by the Herald on Sunday in central Auckland overwhelmingly agreed putting graphic photos of tooth decay on sugary drinks was likely to put people off.

Jessica Gallagher, 18, said this would help educate people.

"A lot of kids who buy [sugary drinks] don't really think about the consequences on their bodies.

"All the packaging that you have on stuff now is bright and vibrant. If you put something that's more vocal and visible of what it's actually doing to you, it's going to prevent you from wanting to buy it. I definitely think I would personally be put off."

Jessica Gallagher, 18, thinks putting graphic warnings on sugary drinks is a good idea. Photo / Doug Sherring
Jessica Gallagher, 18, thinks putting graphic warnings on sugary drinks is a good idea. Photo / Doug Sherring

Twenty-one-year-old Regan Shere said graphic warnings would be particularly helpful in educating children.

"We already put labels on other things that are harmful to our health - alcohol, cigarettes - and we live in a culture of excess and the accessibility of sugary drinks is pretty high."

Former Prime Minister Helen Clark voiced her support on Twitter, saying graphic warnings, as well as a sugar tax of at least 20 per cent, would significantly help combat obesity.

The Ministry for Primary Industries (MPI) is responsible for regulating food labelling.

An MPI spokeswoman said the Ministry had done a lot of research on sugar labelling on foods and beverages and consumers' understanding of this.

It was developing a range of proposed changes to labelling and would put these out for public consultation soon.

She could not confirm whether graphic warnings would be among these but said the possible options would be broad.

A spokesman for the Beverage Council said it supported sensible ways to help customers make informed purchase decisions, including the voluntary health star rating system.

"Graphic pictorial warnings, however, are a ridiculous suggestion that are designed to do nothing but scaremonger and provide consumers with misleading and alarmist information," he said.

"The reality is a sugar-sweetened beverage will not cause you to become obese or for your teeth to fall out, as the proponents of a graphic warning would have consumers believe.

"In fact, the sensible and occasional consumption of beverages containing sugar is absolutely safe and can have a place in a balanced and active lifestyle."

Coca-Cola New Zealand and Frucor Suntory - two of New Zealand's largest drink manufacturers - said information about their drinks' ingredients were already clearly labelled.