By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, Calif., Feb 13 (Reuters) - All sodas and other sugar-sweetened drinks sold in California would be required to carry warning labels for obesity, diabetes and tooth decay under a bill introduced in Sacramento on Thursday, backed by several public health advocacy groups.
If passed, caloric drinks would join tobacco and alcohol products in carrying health warning labels in California, the nation's most populous state and a legislative trend-setter.
Proponents say the first-of-its kind effort takes aim at the epidemic of obesity in the United States, where 35.7 percent of adults and 16.9 percent of children aged 2 to 19 are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
A growing body of research has identified sugary drinks as the biggest contributors to added, empty calories in the American diet, and as a major culprit in a range of costly health problems associated with being overweight.
The proposal is expected to face stiff opposition from the beverage industry, which has fought efforts elsewhere to clamp down on the consumption of high-calorie beverages ranging from soda to sports drinks.
In New York City in 2012, then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg spearheaded a ban on sales of large sugary drinks, but the move was later declared illegal by a state judge after a legal challenge by soft drink makers and a restaurant group.
New York's highest court has agreed to hear an appeal.
San Francisco voters may decide on a ballot initiative that would impose a 2-cents-per-ounce tax on sodas and other drinks with added sugar sold there, but two other California cities failed in their attempts to impose a special soda tax, as did the ski resort town of Telluride, Colorado.
The American Beverage Association, which represents industry leaders such as Coca-Cola Co, PepsiCo Inc and Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc, has said raising taxes and restricting soft drink consumption will not necessarily lead to a healthier population.
Critics of such moves have derided them for what they call the rise of the "nanny state".
But supporters of the legislation introduced on Thursday by California state Senator Bill Monning, a Democrat from Carmel, said the labels merely provide consumers with information they should have to make healthy, informed choices.
"This is about education," said Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, which is supporting the measure along with the California Medical Association and other health groups in the state.
Obesity accounts for nearly $200 billion a year in U.S. medical spending, more than 20 percent of national healthcare costs, according to a 2012 report in the Journal of Health Economics. It also is linked to lower worker productivity and diminished quality of life.
Monning compared his proposed labeling with warnings carried on tobacco and alcohol products.
"When the science is this conclusive, the state of California has a responsibility to take steps to protect consumers," he said in a statement.
By the sheer magnitude of California's economy, requiring safety labels on sodas sold there would likely influence other states or the federal government to follow suit.
Under the bill, all beverage containers with added sweeteners that have 75 calories or more per 12 ounces must carry a label that reads: State of California Safety Warning: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay".
Goldstein said the requirement would effectively apply to any sugar-sweetened bottled and canned sodas, energy drinks, sports drinks, vitamin water and iced teas, all of which he said have been marketed more aggressively by beverage makers in recent years.
The label text was developed by a national panel of nutrition and public health experts, he said.
Supporters of the measure cite research showing sodas and other sugary drinks account for 43 percent of added calories in the American diet over the past 30 years.
Drinking just one soda a day increases an adult's likelihood of being overweight by 27 percent and a child's by 55 percent, while a soda or two a day increases the risk of diabetes by 26 percent, medical studies show.
Unless current trends are reversed, health advocates say, one in three U.S. children born after the year 2000 - and nearly half of Latino and African-American children - will develop type-2 diabetes in their lifetimes.
Other health risks linked with obesity include heart disease, cancer and asthma.