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California senators consider action on sweetened beverages

November 5, 2009 |  7:18 pm

Fat
Now that public officials and health authorities have recognized the growing problem of obesity, the question is what to do about it. Today, over several hours, California legislators heard testimony about sugar-sweetened soft drinks as they consider possible legislation. It was, according to one of the country’s leading researchers on obesity, a “historic” hearing.


There is a “compelling case for taking public health action” to curb consumption of sweetened soft drinks, said the researcher, Kelly Brownell, director of the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale. He is among those who have proposed a tax on sodas.

The hearing, at Los Angeles City Hall, was called jointly by the state Senate Select Committee on Obesity and Diabetes and the Senate Health Committee.

“There is near unanimity that we are facing an obesity epidemic in America,” Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima), chairman of the select committee, said to open the hearing. Sixteen million Californians are overweight or obese, and those rates have tripled among teenagers in the last three decades, he said. The annual cost – in healthcare, workers’ compensation and lost productivity -- runs in the billions of dollars, he added.

Padilla said the senators wanted to hear ideas from experts and did not have a plan in mind yet. Sen. Elaine Alquist (D-San Jose), chairwoman of the health committee, cited research that 62% of adolescents and 41% of children ages 2 to 11 drink soda everyday. “This just has to stop,” she said.

Several researchers testified about sweetened-beverage marketing and consumption, about diabetes and dental health and about whether consumption can be linked to obesity. Brownell said a number of studies show “a very strong” relationship between sweetened-beverage consumption and obesity.

“Adults who drink soda every day are 27% more likely to be obese,” said Susan Batey, a researcher at the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. A study from that center prompted today’s hearing.

Representatives from Coca-Cola Co. and from the American Beverage Assn. also testified.

Maureen Storey, a vice president at the beverage association, cited research showing that 5.5% of calories come from sweetened beverages. And she said that a lack of exercise and other foods also contribute to obesity. A narrow focus on soft drinks will fail to solve the problem, she said. She said the UCLA study also showed that half of adults who don’t drink soda are also overweight.

And Margaret Leahy, director of health and wellness science at Coca-Cola, also talked about the “totality” of the diet. She said that as the grandmother of four, she cares “deeply about the health of our nation. But it’s “unlikely” that one food is the answer to the obesity problem. “We cannot blame overweight or obesity on soft drinks,” she said.

Padilla told the industry representatives that he found their testimony disappointing.

Said Alquist: “To be told that all calories are equal, that sweetened soda pop is not contributing to obesity ... the public is not stupid. We know you can do better.”

Another senator, Dean Florez, told the hearing room: “I would like to end the Pepsi Generation.” He compared the marketing of soft drinks to cigarette marketing and said he thinks a soda tax is needed.

Brownell noted that the landscape for the soda industry is not unlike what it was for the tobacco industry when governments began to increase taxes on cigarettes as a strategy to get people to stop smoking.

California has taken some actions already to require nutrition labeling on menus and to regulate foods sold at schools.

-- Mary MacVean

Photo Credit: Anne Cusack / Los Angeles Times

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