Soda taxes, warning labels: gaining momentum or losing steam?

By Jim Webster

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 11, 2014 - Health activists at the National Soda Summit in Washington last week highlighted legislative efforts to limit the consumption of beverages that contain sugar or high fructose corn syrup.

Much of the focus was on California, where the state Senate last week passed a bill that would require most drinks containing over 75 calories per 12 ounce serving to include a label that reads: “State of California Safety Warning: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.”

“The value of the warning label is that it provides a laser guiding attention to a particular product,” Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, said at the summit, which was organized by the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “As a nation, this is what people are ready for…Once they have the information then they'll be ready for more.” 

Lets Talk Food

Carter Headrick, director of state and local obesity policy initiatives for the American Heart Association, said the warning label in California would help frame the soda debate around health, and that various campaigns across the country “help build us so we can pass taxes.” He said he anticipates other states moving forward with sugary beverage taxes next year.

The Los Angeles County Department of Public Health recently published a survey conducted in 2011 that shows the majority of Southern California residents would support legislation to raise taxes on drinks containing sugar. However, a soda tax proposal failed last year in California.

And recently in Illinois, lawmakers turned down a plan that would have taxed soda at 1 cent per ounce. Backers said the proposal, which excluded milk and diet beverages, would have cost consumers an extra $2.88 per case of soda.

“We knew it couldn't pass this year,” said Elissa Bassler, CEO of the Illinois Public Health Institute. “The industry can mobilize every gas station and grocery store…they're very threatened.”

In an interview, ABA spokesman Chris Gindlesperger said most soda tax proposals are “extremely unpopular” and dead on arrival. None of the 30 state and city soda tax proposals introduced in the past several years have passed, he said.

Regarding the warning label proposal in California, Gindlesperger said it would do nothing to change behavior or teach people about leading a healthier lifestyle. “All [the proposal] will do is feed confusion surrounding beverages,” he said, particularly because the measure excludes many milk-based products that are as high or higher in calories than soda. 

Activists at the summit were also closely watching efforts by New York City to reinstate Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ban on sales of sodas and other “sugary” drinks over 16 ounces in restaurants, movie theatres and stadiums.  During the first day of the summit, the New York Court of Appeals heard oral arguments from the New York City health officials on Bloomberg's plan. The mayor instituted the portion cap in 2012, but the New York Supreme Court struck it down as “arbitrary and capricious.”

Maura Kennelly, with the New York City Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, told the summit she expects a decision from the appeals court by the end of June. 

A recent Rasmussen Reports poll found that 63 percent of American adults oppose a ban on the sale of soft drinks larger than 16 ounces. 

Gindlespeger, meanwhile, said taxing sweetened soft drinks would hurt an industry that provides more than 200,000 jobs, with an economic impact of more than $140 billion annually. “Those jobs and that impact is put at risk whenever they propose a tax like this,” he said.

He said the industry is responding to calls for healthier diets through several projects, including one launched in 2005 to replace soda in schools with water, milk and juice. A report on that project published in 2010 indicated they were able to reduce calories available from beverages in schools by 90 percent, he said.

Also, the ABA launched its “Clear on Calories” program in 2010, providing full calorie counts on the front of products. The project partnered with Michelle Obama's “Let's Move” initiative aimed at reducing childhood obesity.

“We're not trying to pull the wool over anyone's eyes,” Gindlesperger said. “This is empowering consumers to make the choices that are right for them.”

Meanwhile, Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn, told the summit by video that she plans to introduce federal legislation to tax sugar-sweetened drinks “in a matter of weeks.”

“All too often sugary foods or drinks with high fructose corn syrup are cheaper as a direct result of government policies,” she said. “When a two-liter cola is 99 cents and blueberries are over $3, something has gone very wrong.”

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