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Cigarettes, carcinogenic chemicals - and soda?

Sugary beverages could become the latest consumer products to bear warning labels under a new bill, introduced by Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, intended to contain spiraling obesity rates.

"We're in the midst of an obesity and diabetes epidemic that's wreaking havoc on the public's health," Monning said at a Thursday press conference, standing beside mock-ups of soda cans with labels warning about the hazards of tooth decay and diabetes.

"With daily consumption of these sugary drinks becoming the norm in the American diet," Monning added, "it is critical that consumers have the right to know the unique health problems associated with these sugar-sweetened beverages."

As currently written, the legislation would apply to beverages containing over 75 calories per 12 ounce serving. Co-sponsors include the California Medical Association, the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, the California Black Health Network and the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California.

The bill follows other high-profile public policy efforts to limit soda consumption, notably a failed and deeply divisive proposal by former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to ban large sodas. In past years, Monning has unsuccessfully sought to impose a tax on sweetened beverages.

"The support has not been there for a tax," Monning said, but he believes approaching the issue via labeling "will face less resistance in the Legislature."

Increasing diabetes rates are the leading contributor to swelling healthcare costs, said Dr. Harold Goldstein of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. He cited studies finding that the average American imbibes 39 pounds of sugar a year.

"There is now overwhelming evidence that soda and other sugary drinks play a central and unique role in the development of obesity, diabetes and tooth decay," Goldstein said.

Childhood obesity and its associated health effects has become a pressing public health issue. Around 40 percent of California's children are overweight, and Goldstein pointed out that children born after 2000 have a lower life expectancy than their parents.

Young people of color are especially susceptible. Fully half of African-American children are likely to develop type 2 diabetes, said Darcel Lee of the California Black Health Network.

"This is a public health outrage," Lee said.

But Calbev, which represents the soft drink industry in California, issued a statement deflecting responsibility for increased obesity rates.

"We agree that obesity is a serious and complex issue," the statement says. "However, it is misleading to suggest that soft drink consumption is uniquely responsible for weight gain. In fact, only four percent of calories in the average American diet are derived directly from soda. According to government data, foods, not beverages, are the top source of sugars in the American diet."

The group also noted that the industry in 2010 launched an initiative in which calories counts are displayed on soft drink packaging.

Should the bill become law, it could present beverage manufacturers with a choice between altering their labels or exiting the vast California market. As has been the case with California raising standards in the past, Monning said his bill could set off a national ripple effect.

"Our hope would be that it would pave the way for a national standard," Monning said.

PHOTO: Sen. Bill Monning unveils his soda labeling bill in Sacramento on February 13, 2014. The Sacramento Bee/Jeremy B. White.



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