Casting doubt on the effectiveness of food labels as a public health tool, California lawmakers on Tuesday turned back legislation that would require warnings on sugary beverages.
“It’s an honorable effort, but I feel it’s ineffective,” said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, who acknowledged that soda manufacturers are prominent job generators in her district. “I think this bill creates as much confusion as it does information. A label which will appear on soda and sports drinks with no labels appearing on chocolate milk, juices or alcoholic beverages sends the wrong message.”
Senate Bill 1000 slipped out of the Senate last month with the bare minimum 21 votes needed to advance. Legislators on the Assembly Health Committee halted its progress, with two Democrats voting against the measure and four others abstaining. The measure fell three votes short of the 10 needed to pass.
After trying unsuccessfully in the past to impose a tax on sugar-suffused drinks, Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, this year sought to drain soda consumption by having drinks containing at least 75 calories per 12 ounces bear warning labels. Monning and public health officials backing the legislation called sugary drinks a key culprit in the nation’s swollen obesity rate.
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“The label is based on the science that says liquid sugar is a unique driver in today’s obesity and diabetes epidemics,” Monning testified.
Opponents representing the beverage industry castigated Monning’s bill for unfairly singling out soft drinks, speaking in chorus with interest groups representing restaurants and the business community. They argued that other factors – including a lack of exercise, genetics and unhealthy diets – contribute in concert to ballooning levels of obesity and diabetes.
“This bill would not give consumers meaningful, helpful information,” testified John Latimer, a lobbyist representing the California Retailers Association and PepsiCo. “Instead it will disparage many hundreds of beverages that can be safely consumed and responsibly added as part of a healthy diet.”
Holding aloft a picture of a thick slice of chocolate cake, Latimer dismissed a soda-labeling policy as inconsistent.
“This beautiful piece of chocolate cake, which can be secured at a restaurant nearby, has 2,700 calories, 155 grams of fat, 55 grams of saturated fat,” Latimer said. “And yet it doesn’t need a warning label, but a 75-calorie beverage does?”
Members who declined to support the bill said they were not convinced that labeling would do enough to influence consumer behavior.
“I’ve looked for any kind of information that shows that labeling changes peoples’ habits,” said Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez, D-Los Angeles. “I haven’t found one.”
Comparisons to the tobacco industry, both overt and implicit, surfaced throughout the debate. Dr. Harold Goldstein of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy wondered, “how bad will it have to get before we begin to tell the truth about these sugary drinks?” Assemblyman Tom Ammiano, D-San Francisco, was more direct.
“I do remember some of these same arguments and some of the same struggles around labeling of cigarettes,” Ammiano said, “and it took a long time to permeate peoples’ consciousness.”
Critics of the bill rejected those comparisons, saying it is disingenuous to equate soda and smoking.
“Smoking is inherently dangerous,” said Bob Achermann, a lobbyist representing a trade group called the California Nevada Soft Drink Association. “Consumption of a sugar-sweetened beverage, or anything else for that matter, is not inherently dangerous.”