Editorial: Legislature should impose warning labels on sugary soda to combat obesity and diabetes

The risks, by now, should be familiar. For years, sugary soft drinks have been linked with skyrocketing rates of obesity and related disease.

Guzzle a regular, 20-ounce bottle of cola and you’ve just downed the liquid equivalent of 16 sugar packets. Make it a habit – say, a bottle or two daily– and now you’re 26 percent more likely to become a Type 2 diabetic. If you’re a child, you’re also 55 percent more likely to become overweight.

We all already know this, right?

Not so much, according to the public health advocates behind Senate Bill 1000 by Sen. Bill Monning, a Santa Cruz-area Democrat. Monning’s bill, which awaits action in the Senate Appropriations Committee, would make California the first state in the nation to put tobacco-style health warnings on sugary beverages.

Proposed for container fronts of all sweetened drinks with 75 calories or more per serving, the labels would remind that drinking beverages with added sugar “contributes” to obesity, diabetes and other ills. The hope is to do something – anything – about the weight crisis that has become a leading driver of spiraling health care costs.

Diabetes alone accounts for 1 out of every 5 dollars spent on health care in the nation, and its costs in California are higher than in any other state. Though the adult-onset version arises from a number of factors, its links to obesity are proven, and sugary drinks, which all but mainline high fructose corn syrup into your liver, have been America’s No. 1 source of added calories.

So health organizations have worked to get the word out, with some progress. California schools no longer sell soft drinks, a step that The Sacramento Bee’s editorial board supported more than a decade ago. Soda consumption, on average, is way down nationally.

But not everyone is getting the message. Sixty-five percent of California teenagers still down one or more sugary drinks daily, for instance, and the state’s biggest consumers of these beverages still are Latinos and African Americans.

Perhaps consequently, Type 2 diabetes is now epidemic in black and Latino communities, and nearly 1 in 4 teenagers nationally either is on the verge of the disease or already has it. Disturbingly, according to a recent report in the journal Pediatrics, that rate appears to have more than doubled during the past decade.

The beverage industry says it shouldn’t be singled out for diseases that stem from many factors, and that requiring custom labels for just one state is expensive and possibly unconstitutional. Plus, the FDA already is overhauling nutrition labels. Isn’t that enough?

If only. What teenager studies the fine print on the back of a Coke can? And warning labels on sugary drinks have been pending for years before the FDA.

A science-based, front-of-the-can warning is a reasonable, at-a-glance step that would inform more kids and parents. At minimum, a move here might stiffen the FDA’s spine and shape the national debate.

The beverage industry has fought to control the message on this issue. So far, health advocates have been outgunned.

It might help, though, if California’s physicians put their political money where their mouths are. Dr. Ruth Haskins of the California Medical Association told The Bee editorial board that, as important as these soda warnings are, the CMA’s top priority this year will be killing a November initiative raising the state cap on awards for medical malpractice.

Really, docs? Because when physicians back-burner a public health crisis to rush to the aid of their wallets, that, too, sends a message.

But you all already know this. Right?