US sugar warning labels bill fails

Cigarette-like health messages on sweet beverages backed by health activists

Monning says warning labels would be the most efficacious tool for educating people about the dangers of sugary drinks. Photo / Thinkstock
Monning says warning labels would be the most efficacious tool for educating people about the dangers of sugary drinks. Photo / Thinkstock

A bill that would have made California the first US state to require warning labels on sugary drinks was effectively killed yesterday.

The bill sponsored by state Senator Bill Monning failed on a 7-8 vote as his fellow Democratic legislators doubted whether a label would change consumer behaviour. It needed 10 votes to pass.

The bill would have required that certain soft, energy and fruit drinks carry a label reading, "State of California safety warning: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay."

It was developed by public health advocates using cigarette and alcohol warnings as a model.

Representatives of the beverage industry argued that the bill was unfair because it did not apply to other foods and drinks, including lattes and chocolate milk.

Monning says warning labels would be the most efficacious tool for educating people about the dangers of sugary drinks.

His bill had support from the California Medical Association, the California Centre for Public Health Advocacy and groups devoted to improving the health of minorities. A similar bill in Vermont stalled this year.

Democratic Assemblyman Jimmy Gomez noted cigarette warning labels were accompanied by taxes and prohibitions on smoking in public places before tobacco use plunged. "It wasn't necessarily the labels that changed peoples' habits," said Gomez.

CalBev, the California arm of the American Beverage Association, says it posts calorie counts on the front of many containers as part of a voluntary campaign that started in 2010.

Industry groups also say warning labels may conflict with an upcoming overhaul of the nutritional information labels regulated by the US Food and Drug Administration.

Former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg pushed a ban on large servings of soft drinks in 2012. A court struck down the ban after it prompted lawsuits and an aggressive campaign from businesses. The lower court ruling has been appealed.

Leaders in San Francisco and Berkeley are considering sending measures imposing a sugary drink tax to voters in November after nearby Richmond rejected such a tax in 2012.

A children's health group recently launched a "Sugar Bites" ad campaign in San Francisco depicting sugary drinks as snarling monsters with sharp teeth held by anxious children.

Monning, who previously called for a soda tax, said he would keep pushing for warning labels.

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