PD Editorial: Soda warnings are tough to swallow

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Warning: The California state Legislature is still in session.

The state Senate recently passed a bill, SB 347, requiring beverages with added sugar to carry a warning label advising consumers of potential health risks. The move follows San Francisco’s attempt to impose warning labels on such beverages, which was ruled unconstitutional earlier this year in the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

Other states are considering similar legislation, and some cities have taken direct action. For example, Philadelphia has assessed a surtax on sugary beverages for three years. Baltimore recently removed such items from school cafeteria menus.

While acknowledging the good intentions behind efforts to curb the consumption of sugary beverages, the warning label bill strikes us as an unimaginative and feeble gesture.

We agree with the bill’s sponsors that sugary beverages like sodas have little to recommend them. They convey a single health benefit, hydration, that is better delivered by plain water. And they contain unnaturally high levels of fructose and glucose, which can contribute to a host of health problems, including obesity and diabetes.

But an honest appraisal of the drawbacks of sugary beverages demands just as clear-eyed a view of the steps proposed to mitigate their threats to public health. And that’s where the case for these warning labels begins to fall apart.

The most prominent examples of warning labels are on tobacco and alcohol. The public interest in such labels is clear. There is no such thing as a healthy number of drags on a cigarette. Warning labels serve as a reminder that any tobacco use is a dangerous choice.

Alcohol is a little more complicated, but not much. In limited quantities, it can benefit responsible adult drinkers. For others, including children and pregnant women, it presents serious health risks. And there are always the dangers of overindulging and addiction. Warning labels on alcoholic beverages are scoped appropriately to these risks.

The same can’t be said for sugary beverages, which meet (however imperfectly) an essential human need, are benign when consumed in moderation, and pose no special threat to vulnerable populations. Warning labels simply reiterate what people already know: too much sugar is bad for you.

Those people who already ignore that simple fact are unlikely to be deterred by a block of text on their soda can. Those who accept it don’t need an added reminder.

At best, such warning labels promise to be largely redundant and ineffective. At worst, they threaten to undermine public confidence in the urgent messages sent by labels warning of the demonstrable and immediate health risks associated with products such as tobacco and alcohol. Soda isn’t on the same level and shouldn’t be treated as if it is. What next? Will California also put warning labels on cheese, white bread and ice cream?

Instead of labels, lawmakers should focus on the more clear and present threats to public dietary health. Too many Californians live in food deserts — neighborhoods without access to fresh food. Others lack safe drinking water.

Rather than play along with the Senate, Assembly members should address these real threats to health. No one wins watching lawmakers, advocates and beverage lobbyists bicker over soda warning labels.

You can send a letter to the editor at letters@pressdemocrat.com

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