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California's teenagers are drinking more sugar-sweetened drinks than ever despite a marked decline in consumption among younger children, according to a new study.

Daily consumption of sugary drinks — sodas, flavored waters and sports drinks — fell 30 percent among 2-5 year olds between 2005 and 2012 and 26 percent among 6-11 year olds in the same span, according to the study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.

Yet among the state's teenagers, consumption of sugary drinks increased 8 percent.

North Coast health officials said teens are increasingly consuming beverages that are pitched as energy drinks or athletic supplements but are loaded with added sugar.

"The growth of that energy drink market has really exploded," said Rebecca Smith, resource development coordinator with Marin County's health and prevention services.

"They are really targeting young people and preying on that sense of independence and a kind of new, hip, fashionable drink," she said.

But inroads are being made through education campaigns and public service announcements that encourage young people to read labels and consider beverages as an additional source of daily calories.

In Marin County, the percentage of children who drank at least one sugary beverage per day dropped 19 percent between 2005 and 2012, according to the study.

In Sonoma County, the percentage of children who drank at least one sugary beverage per day dropped 25 percent in that period, marking one of the steepest declines in the state.

In Napa, the rates dropped 31 percent, while Mendocino remained even.

In Lake County, the UCLA study found that intake of sugary drinks shot up 36 percent. Dr. Karen Tait, the county health officer, questioned the sample size for Lake County, which study authors noted was "statistically unstable."

"What it tells me is that the sample size is so small that the numbers are not very statistically reliable," Tait said.

"That is not to say we are not concerned," she said. "I think it is a trend in young people that has to be dealt with through education and other measures."

Because soda and sugar-sweetened drinks are the largest source of added sugar in the diets of all Americans, county health officials say they are increasingly addressing not only what food choices people are making but what they are drinking as well.

"The research really shows that there is a strong correlation between sugary beverages and the current overweight, obesity crisis this county is going through," said Colleen Schenck, program administrator in the prevention and planning unit of the Mendocino County Health and Human Services office.

California banned soda sales in schools in 2009, but so-called energy drinks remain.

But drink sales from snack bars run by booster clubs are considered by some to be a crucial source of fundraising for athletic teams, drama departments and other school programs.

"There is a fair amount of resistance" to eliminating sugary drinks from booster sales, said Schenck. "That is a really challenging area because they are trying to raise money for school organizations."

In Sonoma County, the financial cost of health care and lost productivity related to physical inactivity and overweight people was $437 million in 2006, according to the latest figures from the Center for Public Health Advocacy.

Nationwide, obesity-related medical costs totaled $147 billion in 2006 — nearly 10 percent of all medical spending, according to a 2011 study in Health Affairs.

Many educational campaigns focus on reading labels or making obvious the amount of sugar contained in soda and sports drinks.

"It's crazy," said Kaiser Permanente pediatrician Ari Hauptman. "Would you ever really open up that many sugar packets and gulp them down? Never."

Accordingly, eliminating sugary beverages from daily intake can have profound impacts, Hauptman said.

"There are five big changes you can make when you have issues with (body mass index) or weight and the number one, easiest one is don't buy sugary drinks," he said. "It's really hard to increase physical activity for some people or to limit your screen time for some people or eat five servings of fruits and vegetables, but not buying sugar drinks?"

For Santa Rosa High School sophomore Danny London, label-reading came into play for health reasons.

"I used to drink soda a lot," he said. "I'm not that tall so I thought becoming healthy would help me grow. I gave up soda for my New Year's resolution. That was the last time I had it."

Santa Rosa junior Marco Sanchez estimated he drinks about three sugar-infused drinks a day — two Pepsis and one Vitamin Water. That is down from what he drank a few years ago.

As a younger kid, "you don't have all the statistics about them, like calories," he said.

In Mendocino County, officials have made inroads with community groups to limit the availability of sugar-infused drinks at community events such as fairs, festivals and open houses.

"Community organizations, especially in rural areas like this, are the organizations that present all kinds of events and activities for the community. We are trying to work with them to adopt healthy beverage standards," Schenck said.

Economics can play a role as well.

"If you can go into the local corner store and for 99 cents can buy a 20-ounce can of 7UP — oftentimes these sugary beverages are like the cheapest options," she said.

(Staff Writer Kerry Benefield writes an education blog at extracredit.blogs.pressdemocrat.com. She can be reached at 526-8671, kerry.benefield@press democrat.com or on Twitter @benefield.)

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