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California Weighs Cigarette-Style Scare Labels for Sodas

There’s no question that obesity is a public health problem: More than one-third of American adults are obese, and it’s getting worse. Does that mean it’s the right time to slap scary labels on sugar-laden drinks?

Lawmakers in California are considering requiring warnings on soda and other sweetened beverages, similar to the way cigarettes and alcohol come with consumer warnings. The bill would mandate the following language: “STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.” The warning message would also appear on vending machines and self-serve drink fountains in fast-food restaurants.

It’s easy to poke holes in this approach or deride it as encroaching nanny-ism. Packaged drinks already have labels required by federal law that show how much sugar they contain. As the California beverage lobby points out (PDF), the bill singles out one source of empty calories. It would label sodas and yet leave, say, double bacon cheeseburgers or fries without heavy-handed reminders of their less-than-healthy qualities.

The California legislation also wouldn’t label televisions. The link between time in front of the TV screen and weight gain is clear. Sitting for long periods anywhere, including at a desk and in a car, is increasingly linked to health problems. No one is blaming Herman Miller for rising obesity.

On the other hand, sweetened drinks are sold with staggering marketing budgets—there’s a reason why Coca-Cola (KO) is among the world’s best-known brands—and healthier choices can’t hope to match that firepower. Mandatory labeling could remind us about the consequences of what we’re putting into our bodies at the very moment when we’re reaching for a bottle of something to quench our thirst.

There are signs that the message the labels would deliver is gradually taking hold in the marketplace, even without stern warnings on product packaging. Sales of carbonated beverages in North America have declined for the last four years, to $77.4 billion last year from $83.1 billion in 2009, according to data from Bloomberg Industries, with increased sales of sports and energy drinks compensating for about half that decline. We’re spending less on soda already.

Tozzi is a reporter for Bloomberg Businessweek in New York.

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