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Next Up in the Labeling War: Sugary Drinks


Photo:setatum/Flickr/Creative Commons License

Consider your morning coffee or tea for a moment: It gets brewed, it gets poured, then you get to add your extra little fixins to it. Maybe you like half-and-half, maybe you're more of a 2% person, maybe you're into soy creamer. But then, to top it off, a whole lot of us add a small spoonful of sugar. A cube's worth is generally enough to make it sweet enough. More than that, and it's too much.

But this time, since we're working in theories and mind games, add a second cube of sugar and stir it in. And a third, and a fourth. Now, add five more sugar cubes and drink it down. Congratulations. You just drank as much sugar as a single 12-ounce can of Coke.

If this information is new to you, don't be embarrassed. You're certainly not alone. While the label on the side of a Coke says it has 33 grams of sugar, numerical measurements like that don't seem to make too big of a dent on the general public. (College kids: If you're looking for a topic for your thesis paper, you could do a whole lot worse than linking the failure of America's science education to its obesity rate.) Even the European president of Coca-Cola admitted as much last year, saying that "people don't realize" how much sugar is in their drinks.

There's a problem, in other words. And a California congressman has a solution: Make a new warning label.

State Senator Bill Monning, from the 17th district, which includes areas of the Central Coast like Santa Cruz, San Luis Obispo, and parts of Monterey, introduced a bill last week that would make it mandatory for sodas and "sugar-sweetened drinks" sold in the state -- the cut-off point being "75 calories or more per 12 ounces" -- to contain the following warning label:

State of California Safety Warning: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.

Beverage companies are, obviously, not very pleased with the proposal. But it's telling that their retorts completely disregard any attempt at claiming "there is no link between soda consumption and obesity" and instead falls more along the lines of "drinking soda is just one part of the obesity problem, so why are you picking on us?" Getting them to admit their complicity is kind of a victory in and of itself. (And perhaps more importantly, simply a terrible argument to try to stop mandatory soda labeling.)

That said: Where the labeling initiative losses me a bit is when Monning -- along with the rest of the health advocacy groups that are on the attack against soda companies -- compares sugary drinks to addictive drugs:

Monning said his labeling bill is akin to health warnings already carried on tobacco and alcohol products and focuses on health risks that a broad body of science has clearly linked to sugary drinks.

Now, don't get me wrong. There is certainly some merit to that point of view (obesity is a terrible epidemic, and sugary drinks contribute to it), and perhaps a bit of over-the-top rhetoric is seen as necessary to get people on board with the proposal (i.e., the squeakier the wheel, the more quickly it gets the grease). But, really, it's not helping. All comparing soda to alcohol and cigarettes does is make the speaker(s) look ill-informed, because soda is not like alcohol and cigarettes. Sure, they're in the same extended family, but in the same way that accidentally bring a Swiss army knife on a plane is a distant relative of international terrorism.

Instead of using these comparison-based tactics, what should be focused on is an expansion of education. Print and video ads depicting how much sugar's actually in a can of soda. In addition to numbers on the label, visual aids to help people understand what they're drinking. (Images of how many sugar cubes are in each can or bottle couldn't hurt.) Any way you can get someone at the store to think twice about ingesting that much sugar is a worthwhile approach.

But saying they're as bad for you as a pack of cigarettes or sixth of Jack Daniels is not effective, simply because it's not true. And more importantly, the faulty comparison keeps consumers from taking the problem seriously.

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