Forget Taxes—Warning Labels Are the Next Front in the Soda Wars [UPDATED]

A new bill being considered by California lawmakers would add a warning label to sugary drinks.

(Photo: Jannes Pockele/Flickr)

Feb 11, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Padma Nagappan is a multimedia journalist who writes about the environment, renewable energy, sustainability, agriculture, and biotechnology.
UPDATED Feb. 13, 2015—8:47 a.m.
A CalBev, a beverage industry trade group, provided comment for TakePart after publication.

Standing in line at a fast food restaurant, you skip the cheese and go with grilled instead of deep fried—gotta keep it healthy. But as you get ready to pay, you don’t think twice about adding a soda to your order. That indulgence is an ingrained habit for many Americans—and this addiction to sugary drinks has a deadly cost.

Drinking one soda a day increases your chances of becoming obese by 25 percent, according to the California Center for Public Health Advocacy—and in children, that number jumps to 55 percent. Doubling that intake for six months can increase the amount of fat in the liver by 150 percent, which can lead to type 2 diabetes.

The group is sponsoring a new bill, introduced in the California legislature Wednesday, that would require safety warning labels on sugary drinks that have 75 calories or more per 12 ounces. The warning would simply state: “Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.”

The effort is driven by an alarming increase in obesity and diabetes. In supposedly health-conscious California, more than 60 percent of adults and 40 percent of children are overweight, making them more vulnerable to heart disease, cancer, high blood pressure, and asthma; 14 percent have diabetes, which can affect the kidneys, nerves, and eyesight.

It’s not just the Golden State that’s suffering this epidemic. Across the U.S, nearly a quarter of all teenagers are pre-diabetic, nearly 10 percent of adults are diabetic, and one-third of adults and children are obese. This has led to a host of initiatives to reduce soda consumption across the country—with varying degrees of success.

“It’s part of a national movement,” Harold Goldstein, CCPHA’s executive director, said of the bill. “There are 16 teaspoons of sugar in a 20-ounce cup of soda, and because it’s absorbed so quickly, it overwhelms the pancreas, which works to reduce our blood sugar level, and at the same time, [excess sugar] leads to accumulation of fat in the liver—and this combination is what leads to diabetes.”

In 2012, New York City’s Mayor Michael Bloomberg famously tried to ban so called “Big Gulp” drinks—sodas and other sugary beverages of more than 16 ounces—and ultimately got shot down after a series of court cases. In Berkeley, California, voters passed the nation’s first ever soda tax in 2014, with supporters receiving advertising and financial help from Bloomberg. Revenue from the one-cent-per-ounce tax is supposed to fund efforts to curb soda and energy drink consumption. In nearby San Francisco, similar efforts failed to garner the needed majority of votes. Illinois and Maryland have looked into soda taxes too.

Compared with Bloomberg’s portion-size restriction—or a tax—Goldstein said the warning label is more of a libertarian strategy.

“It’s an ethical obligation of the state to educate customers about a product that is so harmful,” he said. “Just tell the facts and let consumers decide if they want to buy it or not.”

Those in the beverage industry believe such a label would present the fact too narrowly, however. “Obesity and diabetes are serious health conditions that are more complicated than a warning label. It is counterproductive to suggest that legislation affecting some beverages and not others will be effective,” said Bob Achermann, executive director of CalBev, an industry trade group. “If consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages is going down and diabetes is going up, then how are soda and other sweetened beverages driving the problem?”

Despite the spotty track record of similar public health initiatives, Goldstein is not worried by other efforts that been stymied by successful lobbying by beverage manufacturers. The Surgeon General’s warning that is on tobacco products was initiated in 1965, and it took a while for habits to change, he pointed out. But 50 years later, it has proved to be effective in reducing smoking.

Efforts to warn consumers about the health risks in consuming sugary drinks are still in the early stages, but Goldstein is confident it will be status quo in every state in the next 10 years.

“When California public schools [eliminated] sodas and junk food in 2005, that was the year when childhood obesity rates slowed down, after going up for 20 years,” he said.

Mexico, which is also fighting alarming rates of obesity, is seeing early successes too. After one of the first countrywide soda taxes passed last year, there has been a 6 to 7 percent drop in soda consumption in just six months.