Abstention is no substitute for clear policy

A California bill that would have put warning labels on sugary drinks was killed by voting abstentions recently.
A California bill that would have put warning labels on sugary drinks was killed by voting abstentions recently. Associated Press file

A week and a half ago, the Senate Health Committee buried a measure to put health warning labels on soda bottles and cans.

The weapon of choice was abstention, a backhanded non-move that can derail bills through inaction. Senate Bill 203, sponsored by Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, needed five votes to advance; it received four, with one no vote.

Four other committee members, including the chairman, could have moved it along. All had good reason to back a bill offering their constituents good health information. But none stepped up, which seemed mysterious.

All know that sugary sodas aggravate serious public health problems such as obesity, tooth decay and diabetes. One can of regular cola holds the equivalent of about 10 teaspoons of sugar.

And in working-class districts such as the ones represented by Sens. Isadore Hall, D-Compton, and Janet Nguyen, R-Garden Grove, for example, one voting-age adult in 10 suffers from Type 2 diabetes, according to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research.

In Sen. Richard Roth’s Riverside district, more than a quarter of the adult population is obese, and nearly half dine twice or more a week at some fast-food outlet.

And the committee chairman, Sen. Ed Hernandez, D-Azusa, knows better than most that we have to start somewhere to curb this obesity epidemic. Diabetic blindness is one of the most common and tragic side effects of obesity-linked Type 2 diabetes, and Hernandez not only represents a district with higher-than-average rates of both conditions, but also is an optometrist who sees the toll in his patients’ damaged eyesight.

All four abstained, wordlessly.

The sound of crickets left the public with no idea where or with whom the four stood, health-wise, though it did leave an unfortunate amount of room for speculation. The beverage industry has pulled out all the stops this year to kill soda labeling, seeing it as not only a nuisance but a slippery slope since the nation’s first soda tax passed in Berkeley last year.

Nguyen is a Republican in pro-business Orange County; Hall is running for Congress; Roth is a moderate Democrat in a swing district whose wife heads the Riverside Chamber of Commerce.

Neither Hall nor Nguyen responded to requests for comment. Roth’s office said he abstained because he doubts that labeling is effective but wanted to give Monning a chance to tweak the legislation for next year.

In any case, the decision to “take a walk,” as lawmakers call it, wasn’t so unusual for rank-and-file committee members, who often use the tactic to subtly buy time or bargain. For committee heads, however, the expectations are different. Committee chairmanships are important platforms, and part of the job is making policy choices clear.

Hernandez’s abstention on SB 203 was the second time in a month that the head of the health committee had taken a walk on a piece of high-profile health legislation. Just weeks before the soda-labeling vote, he abstained from voting on a bill to tighten the state’s vaccine laws.

In an interview with a Sacramento Bee editorial board member, Hernandez said he, too, had abstained on labeling to be courteous to Monning, who is on the committee. “I suppose I just could have voted no, but I was trying to be respectful,” he said.

Hernandez opposed soda labeling last year and said he still doesn’t think anyone in search of a sugar fix will be dissuaded by warning labels. As for the vaccine bill, he said, he abstained because he wondered if it was overprotective to allow only kids with medical issues to opt out of school vaccines.

Some might argue that protectiveness is just what a doctor – or a health committee – should order. But arguments require some knowledge of everyone’s position.

Californians shouldn’t have to guess where their lawmakers stand on major issues, especially public health.