By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif. Feb 13 (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.
The first proposal of its kind would put California, which banned sodas and junk food from public schools in 2005, back in the vanguard of a growing national movement to curb the consumption of high-caloric beverages that medical experts say are largely to blame for an epidemic of childhood obesity.
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 all U.S. adults and nearly 17 percent of children between the ages of 2 and 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.
"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," CalBev, the California arm of the American Beverage Association, said in a statement on Thursday.
Foods other than soda do account for most of the overall calories Americans ingest. But unlike calories from sugary drinks, food calories often are bound to protein, vitamins, fiber and other things of nutritional value, experts said.
State Senator Bill Monning, who sponsored the warning label bill and whose effort to push a state tax on sugary drinks died last year, said the new measure was crafted in such a way as to address criticism leveled at other measures.
During debate over a proposed soda levy, the industry asserted that the public needed education about sugar, not another tax and derided his legislation as an example of California assuming the role of a "nanny-state."
Monning said his labeling bill is akin to health warnings already carried on tobacco and alcohol products and focuses on health risks that a broad body of science has clearly linked to sugary drinks.
"When the science is this conclusive, the state of California has a responsibility to take steps to protect consumers," he said.
"I think there will still be opposition from industry, but we'll probably have stronger support in the legislature," Monning said in an interview with Reuters.
Business groups such as the American Beverage Association, which represents industry leaders such as Coca-Cola Co, PepsiCo Inc and Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc, have a track record of fighting off efforts to clamp down on high-calorie beverages.
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, Colorado. The cities of San Francisco and Berkeley both are considering soda tax measures this year.
AIMED AT EDUCATION
Supporters of the legislation introduced on Thursday said the warning labels would merely provide consumers with information they should have to make healthy, informed choices.
"My own husband had to watch his father have, first his foot and then his leg amputated from diabetes," said Darcel Lee, a physician who is executive director of the California Black Health Network, which supports the bill along with the California Medical Association, the California Center for Public Health Advocacy and other groups.
Under the bill, all beverage containers with added sweeteners that have 75 calories or more per 12 ounces would be required to carry a label that reads: State of California Safety Warning: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay."
The label text was developed by a national panel of nutrition and public health experts.
Supporters said the requirement would effectively apply to any sugar-sweetened sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, vitamin water and iced teas, all of which he said have been marketed more aggressively by beverage makers in recent years.
U.S. soda consumption rose sharply in recent decades, even as the health risks of sugary drinks became better understood.
Drinking just one soda a day increases an adult's likelihood of being overweight by 27 percent and a child's by 55 percent, while a soda or two a day increases the risk of diabetes by 26 percent, studies show.
Unless current trends are reversed, health advocates say, one in three U.S. children born after the year 2000, and nearly half of Latino and African-American children, will develop type-2 diabetes in their lifetimes.
Other health risks linked with obesity include heart disease, cancer and asthma.
By the sheer magnitude of California's economy, requiring safety labels on sodas sold there would likely influence other states or the federal government to follow suit.
Obesity accounts for nearly $200 billion a year in U.S. medical spending, more than 20 percent of national healthcare costs, according to a 2012 report in the Journal of Health Economics. It also is linked to lower worker productivity and diminished quality of life.