Over the past few years, public-health officials across the country have mounted a variety of efforts to limit the consumption of sugary soft drinks. We’ve discussed some of these efforts here at Diabetes Flashpoints, including then-New York Governor David Paterson’s bid to tax soda in 2009 and then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s 2012 attempt to limit the size of sugary drinks sold in the city. While these proposals made headlines for their audacity, and were both ultimately unsuccessful (although Bloomberg’s rule could still be reinstated by an appeals court), smaller-scale efforts to rein in sugary beverages have often been carried out with little protest. For example, California banned the sale of sugary soft drinks and certain junk foods in public schools in 2005.
California is now poised to use a new tactic in the fight over sugary beverages. After rejecting a one-cent-per-ounce tax on sugary soft drinks last year, the state Legislature is now considering a bill that would require such beverages to carry warning labels, as noted in a recent Reuters article. These labels would describe certain health risks associated with sugar-sweetened beverages, including tooth decay, obesity, and Type 2 diabetes. The bill has already passed the state Senate in a vote of 21–13. In order to become law, it must now be approved by the state Assembly and then signed by Gov. Jerry Brown. Neither of these outcomes is a sure thing, and the beverage industry has mounted a strong publicity and lobbying effort against the measure.
Opponents of taxing or otherwise discouraging the consumption of sugary beverages often point out that these beverages are just one factor, out of many, that may contribute to obesity and related diseases. Some research, however, has pointed to a unique role for sugar in the development of Type 2 diabetes. As we noted last year, a high-profile study that analyzed eating patterns and diabetes rates around the world found that only sugar consumption — not meat, fiber, fruit, oil, or grain consumption — corresponded to the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes. In fact, the study found that for every 150-calorie increase in average sugar consumption, a country’s diabetes rate rose by 1.1% — even after controlling for factors like total calorie consumption, incidence of overweight and obesity, and age of the population.
According to at least one survey, many Californians wouldn’t mind a tax on sugary beverages. Since legislators have already rejected that idea, however, warning labels may be a more politically viable alternative. Unlike taxes, warning labels can easily be ignored by people who wish to ignore them, and can be seen as educating consumers rather than directly trying to influence their behavior. But, of course, one can easily ask why only sugary beverages should carry warning labels, out of all foods and nonalcoholic beverages. As we’ve noted here at Diabetes Flashpoints, red meat and zero-calorie sweeteners have both been associated with a higher risk of developing Type 2 diabetes, and a recent study found that eating white bread is associated with a higher obesity risk.
What’s your view on warning labels for sugary beverages — are they a good way to warn consumers of potential dangers, or would they unfairly single out just one potential cause of disease? Would you be more inclined to support a tax or a warning label on sugary beverages, or other foods and beverages that might be considered unhealthy? Should all potentially unhealthy foods carry a warning, or should all foods and beverages carry a nutrition score or set of symbols? Leave a comment below!