The chair of the California Senate’s Select Committee on Obesity and Diabetes has reportedly announced a November 2009 hearing to discuss the purported link between sweetened beverage consumption and obesity. An author of the state’s menu labeling laws, California Senator Alex Padilla (D-San Fernando Valley) issued the September 17, 2009, press release in response to a report published by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA) and UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. Titled Bubbling Over: Soda Consumption and its Link to Obesity in California, the study used data from the 2005 California Health Interview Survey to conclude that “41 percent of children (ages 2-11), 62 percent of adolescents (ages 12-17) and 24 percent of adults drink at least one soda or other sugar-sweetened beverage every day.” It also apparently found that “adults who drink one or more sodas or other sugar-sweetened beverages every day are 27 percent more likely to be overweight or obese.”

CCPHA has called on “cities, counties, businesses, health care providers, religious organizations, the state legislature, and Congress – and each of us as individuals” to take actions calculated to reduce consumption of soda and other sweetened beverages. In particular, the report urges local, state and federal governments to impose a surcharge or tax on these products and to implement marketing restrictions for children younger than 12. “California can and should do more to educate parents. I don’t think that most parents truly appreciate the role soda pop has in causing weight gain,” Padilla stated. “It is unfortunate that soda is actually cheaper than milk and even bottled water in many instances. People need to know that while soda may be cheaper, the associated health costs can be enormous.” See CCPHA Press Release, Law360 and Reuters, September 17, 2009.

In a related development, San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom (D) has reportedly announced his intention to introduce legislation that would impose a fee on retailers that sell sweetened beverages. Newsom did not elaborate on the specifics of the bill but cited the CCPHA study as motivation for the proposal, which would charge grocery and big-box stores but not restaurants that serve soft drinks. Because it does not include a tax on individual cans, the legislation would require approval from the Board of Supervisors only. “We know we’ll be sued,” Newsom was quoted as saying. “But I believe this is really important to do.”

Meanwhile, a September 17 article in The New York Times has noted that “the debate over a tax on sugary drinks . . . is starting to fizz over,” pointing to several doctors, scientists and policy makers who have argued that a tax “could be a powerful weapon in efforts to reduce obesity, in the same way that cigarette taxes have helped curb smoking.” According to the Times, proponents like New York City Health Commissioner Thomas Farley and Arkansas Surgeon General Joseph Thompson have estimated that “a tax of a penny an ounce on sugary beverages would raise $14.9 billion in its first year, which could be spent on health care initiatives.” Presented as part of a research review published in the September 16, 2009, edition of The New England Journal of Medicine, these findings have also garnered support from consumer groups such as the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), despite questions about whether soda taxes would directly affect American health. “I think we should be satisfied that soda taxes would be having a modest effect on consumption but would generate billions of dollars that could used to mount public health campaigns,” CSPI Executive Director Michael Jacobson was quoted as saying.

The American Beverage Association, however, has disputed the effectiveness of such tactics. “When it comes to losing weight, all calories count, regardless of the food source,” Kevin Keane, the association’s senior vice president for public affairs, told the Times. “The bottom line is that the tax isn’t going to make anybody healthier. It’s not going to make a dent in a problem as complex and serious as obesity, and we’re certainly not going to solve the complexities of the health care system with a tax on soda pop.”

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For decades, manufacturers, distributors and retailers at every link in the food chain have come to Shook, Hardy & Bacon to partner with a legal team that understands the issues they face in today's evolving food production industry. Shook attorneys work with some of the world's largest food, beverage and agribusiness companies to establish preventative measures, conduct internal audits, develop public relations strategies, and advance tort reform initiatives.

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