Proposed bill would require warning labels on sugary drinks
Will soda and other saccharine libations soon come with a health warning? They will if it’s up to our state senator, Bill Monning (D-Carmel). On Feb. 27, Monning proposed first-of-its-kind legislation that would require a consumer warning label be placed on sugar-sweetened beverages sold in California.
SB 1000, also known as the Sugar-Sweetened Beverages Safety Warning Act, was proposed to provide vital information to consumers about the harmful effects of consuming sugary drinks, such as sodas, sports drinks, energy drinks, and sweetened teas.
It’s a proposal that has garnered a great deal of comparison with the warning labels introduced to cigarettes and other tobacco products in 1989. And according to Monning, the comparison is valid.
“Like tobacco, the science behind the risks is undeniable,” Monning says. “Sugar-sweetened beverages have an adverse health impact on Californians. They are a public health risk. The difference is that tobacco sales are restricted to adults, while sugar-sweetened beverages are directly marketed to consumers of every age.”
A national panel of nutrition and public health experts developed the wording for the proposed label. If passed, it would read: “STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.”
In addition to being prominently displayed on all cans and bottles of soda and fruit drinks sold in stores with added sweeteners that have 75 or more calories per 12 ounces, it would also appear on self-serve soda dispensers in fast food counters or featured by the registers in a movie theater or business where the dispenser is behind the counter.
The bill is expected to face fierce opposition from CalBev, the state arm of the American Beverage Association. A statement released by Californians for Food & Beverage Choice, a group spearheaded by the American Beverage Association, has initially framed opposition to the bill as a “consumer choice” issue.
“We believe that people can decide for themselves what they can eat and drink. Whether it’s a ‘soda tax,’ or portion size restriction, government regulations won’t make people healthy—only diet, exercise and nutrition education can do that,” the statement reads.
Monning is aware that opponents to the bill believe government should not be dictating consumer choices, but he points to the heavy burden that tobacco has historically levied on the healthcare system as a precedent to take action.
“They’ll talk about the dangers of creating a ‘nanny’ government and not letting the free market operate,” Monning says, “but their product is shifting significant costs to the public sector as a result of proven health risks.”
In addition, CalBev says the law should not single out one type of product for special treatment. Although they agree that obesity is “a serious and complex issue,” they believe that it is misleading to suggest that soft drink consumption is uniquely responsible for weight gain.
“In fact only 4 percent of calories in the average American diet are derived directly from soda,” the statement says. “According to government data, foods, not beverages, are the top source of sugars in the American diet.”
“Our opponents say, ‘Why pick on sugar-sweetened beverages?’ For good reason,” Monning says. “All of the scientific data says the liquid delivery of sugars provides zero in terms of nutritional value and the body is not well equipped to handle it in these forms. It is particularly taxing to the pancreas and liver and contributes directly to the development of diabetes.”
While many major soda producers have voluntarily displayed calorie counts on the front of each bottle for years, Monning believes a distinct warning label is necessary. “A label gives the consumer that in-face warning or reminder that these products have been proven to contribute to serious health risks and consumers should have the right to know,” he says.
According to a sponsor fact sheet distributed by Monning’s office, more than 60 percent of the state’s adults (16.6 million in total) and nearly 40 percent of the state’s children are overweight, leading to higher incidences of diabetes and other disorders, including heart disease, cancer, and asthma. The issues of being overweight, obese, and physically inactive cost California’s economy an estimated $52 billion a year in medical expenses and lost productivity.
While California’s obesity “epidemic” is not in question, past efforts by Monning to deter the consumption of soda have been defeated by opposition from groups such as the California Nevada Soft Drink Association
The Senate Committee on Appropriations recently shelved a Monning bill that would have taxed soft drinks to raise $1.7 billion for anti-obesity programs. Opponents to the measure argued a tax “would not change behavior but would add to consumer costs.”
“We were trying to do something similar to the tobacco tax, but were not successful,” Monning says. “A warning label keeps a focus on the issue while providing consumers with an awareness of the products’ adverse health effects.”
Despite the fact that his last soda bill never made it out of committee, the tide may be shifting on the sugar issue as other organizations weigh in on the apparently clear and present dangers of sugar and sugar-sweetened beverages.
Last week, the World Health Organization (WHO) again urged people to lower the amount of sugar they eat. At a March 5 news conference, Dr. Francesco Branco, head of nutrition for health and development for the Geneva-based global health agency, told reporters, “Sugar might become the new tobacco in terms of risk.”
Branco and WHO have recommended that the daily allowance for a person’s sugar intake be reduced from 50 to 25 grams and make up only 5 percent of an individual’s total calories.
“An average serving at a fast food place of sugar-sweetened soda … approaches 30 grams of sugar per serving,” Branco says. “That already exceeds the recommended daily serving for a child.”
He also emphasized that if parents can limit their child’s sugar intake to 5 percent, it could eradicate incidents of tooth decay and greatly reduce the child’s chances of becoming obese.
On the same day that Branco released his recommendations in Geneva, the County of Santa Cruz Health Services released a comprehensive new county, regional and statewide study on the availability and marketing of tobacco, alcohol and food products in stores.
The large survey collected information from more than 7,300 diverse retail stores—including convenience, supermarket, liquor, tobacco, small market, discount, drug and big-box stores—in all 58 counties of California, with the goal of shedding light on what products are available and promoted in its communities.
Survey results show that more than 70 percent of stores have advertising for unhealthy products on the outside of stores, including sugar-sweetened beverages, while only 10 percent have healthy advertising, such as for milk or fruit and vegetables. In Santa Cruz, 37 percent of these stores are within 1,000 feet of schools and are frequented by children.
“This study highlights what we refer to as ‘food deserts’ in our lower-income communities,” Monning says. “Access to healthy choices simply aren’t as present in these neighborhoods.”
Monning points to the ready access and prominent advertising of unhealthy products illustrated in the study to repudiate his opponents’ arguments that bills such as SB 1000 restrict a free market and enforce a ‘nanny’ government.
“It’s not a level playing field. This government was formed to protect the health and welfare of its people,” he says. “Car seats, air bags, and seat belt laws were all the result of government action. SB 1000 will inspire a broader public discourse and defend the rights of American families to make healthy, informed choices.”
Photo: Keana Parker