California bill would require warning labels on sugary drinks

Labels on sodas and other sugar-sweetened beverages would warn consumers of diabetes, obesity and tooth decay

Soft drinks at a store in San Diego, Feb. 13, 2014.
Sam Hodgson/Reuters

Sodas and most other sugar-sweetened drinks sold in California would be required to carry warning labels for obesity, diabetes and tooth decay under a bill introduced in Sacramento on Thursday and backed by several public-health advocacy groups.

California would be the first state to require such warning labels if SB1000 is approved. It would require the warning to be on the front of all beverage containers with added sweeteners that have 75 or more calories in a 12-ounce serving.

The label would read: "State of California safety warning: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay."

Sen. William Monning, D-Carmel, who proposed the bill, said that there is significant research indicating a link between sugary drinks and those health problems, adding that the wording was developed by a national panel of nutrition and public-health experts. The bill has the backing of the California Medical Association and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.

We’re talking about a public health epidemic that will take more lives than gun violence.

"The goal of the warning quite simply is to give consumers the right to know what are well-established medical impacts from consuming these beverages," Monning told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. "We're talking about a public-health epidemic that will take more lives than gun violence."

The Latino Coalition for a Healthy California and the California Black Health Network also are sponsoring the legislation, citing the heavy consumption of sugary drinks and associated health problems among minorities.

A bill similar to Monning's was introduced last year in Vermont, but it has been held in the Committee on Human Services since April. The Vermont bill would require manufacturers to put warning labels on beverages that "contain sugar or other artificial additives."

A growing body of research has identified sugary drinks as the biggest contributors to added empty calories in the American diet and as a major culprit in a range of costly health problems associated with being overweight.

More than a third of U.S. adults and nearly 17 percent of children ages 2 to 19 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Efforts to curtail consumption of sugary drinks through taxes and other efforts have met fierce resistance from the U.S. food and beverage industry, which came out against the California labeling bill on Thursday.

CalBev, the California arm of the American Beverage Association, released a statement Thursday outlining its opposition to the measure.

"We agree that obesity is a serious and complex issue," the statement read, adding that most calories are consumed in the form of fats, oils and starches in food. "It is misleading to suggest that soft drink consumption is uniquely responsible for weight gain. In fact, only 4.0 percent of calories in the average American diet are derived directly from soda.”

The group would not put a price tag on complying with the proposed legislation but said the measure would increase the cost of doing business in California.

The medical groups backing Monning's bill countered with their own data, saying sugary drinks have been the largest source of added calories in the average American's diet in the past three decades. They also said one soda a day boosts an adult's chances of being overweight by 27 percent and a child's by 55 percent and can increase the risk of diabetes by 26 percent.

Monning equated the warning labels to similar efforts to control alcohol and tobacco and dismissed suggestions that the labeling would be another example of nanny-state government.

"It is not the responsibility of industry to protect the public health. It is the responsibility of government," he said, adding that consumers could still choose to drink the beverages. "We believe it's an appropriate role for government to play."

The warning labels would mesh, he said, with health campaigns and proposed ordinances in several California cities and elsewhere to discourage sugar consumption. San Francisco, for instance, is considering asking voters to approve a tax on soda and other sweetened drinks.

In New York City in 2012, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg spearheaded a ban on sales of large sugary drinks, but the move was declared illegal by a state judge after a legal challenge by soft drink makers and a restaurant group.

New York's highest court has agreed to hear an appeal.

Strong industry opposition helped kill soda tax proposals in two other California cities, as well as in the ski resort town of Telluride, Colo. The cities of San Francisco and Berkeley are both considering soda tax measures this year.

Monning said warning labels can make a difference in consumers' choices, particularly when paired with other public-health campaigns warning of the dangers of obesity.

"We don't underestimate what we're up against," he said. "We're up against $100 million advertising campaigns."

Al Jazeera & Wire Services

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