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By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times

SACRAMENTO, California — Citing studies linking soda to obesity, a state lawmaker and medical experts proposed a first-in-the-nation bill Thursday that sugary drinks sold in California carry health warning labels similar to those on cigarette packs.

They want warning labels on the fronts of all cans and bottles of soda and juice drinks that have sugar added and 75 or more calories per 12 ounces.

The label would read: “STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.”

“When the science is this conclusive, the state of California has a responsibility to take steps to protect consumers,” state Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, said at a Capitol news conference.

At fast food restaurants with self-serve soda dispensers, the label would be on the dispenser. In a movie theater or business where the dispenser is behind the counter and used by employees, the label would be on the counter. In sit-down restaurants, the label might be on the menus.

“As with tobacco and alcohol warnings, this legislation will give Californians vital information they need to make healthier choices,” Monning said.

The legislation is supported by the California Medical Association. It is opposed by CalBev, the state arm of the American Beverage Association, which said the proposal unfairly singles out one type of product for regulation.

“CalBev opposes the bill because obesity is a complex condition that can’t be boiled down to one specific product or ingredient,” said Jessica Borek, a spokeswoman for the industry group, whose members include Coca-Cola Co., Pepsi-Cola Co. and the Dr. Pepper Snapple Group.

Major soda producers have for years voluntarily put calorie counts on the front of each bottle to help consumers make decisions on what to buy, Borek said.

“We agree that obesity is a serious and complex issue,” CalBev said in a statement. “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.”

But health experts say the use of liquid sugar gives soda unique qualities for contributing to diabetes.

Americans, on average, drink more than 45 gallons of sugary beverages a year, according to Dr. Ashby Wolfe of the California Medical Association.

Drinking just one soda a day increases an adult’s likelihood of being overweight by 27 percent and a child’s by 55 percent, according to a World Health Organization-commissioned study published last year in the British Medical Journal.

“As physicians, we’re desperate to break the cycle of diabetes and obesity we see in our offices every day,” Wolfe said. “Consumers have a right to know about the unique health problems associated with soda and other sugary drinks.”

The bill also drew support from minority health activists who said soda consumption is high in their communities because they are targeted by marketers.

Nearly half of African-American and Latino children born after 2000 will develop Type 2 diabetes, said Darcel Lee, a physician who is executive director of the California Black Health Network. “This is a public health outrage,” she said.

The measure, SB 1000, would take effect July 1, 2015. Monning said he hoped that it would become a model for the rest of the country.

California’s Legislature has generally favored measures giving consumers more information about products. Over the years, the state has pioneered legislation aimed at getting residents to eat better, requiring that chain restaurants post calorie information on menus and restricting the use of trans fats in restaurants.

Photo via Wikimedia

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