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Medical Student’s Idea Sparks Bill That Calls for Warning Labels on All Sugary Drinks

He got the idea for a bill that would mandate a warning label for sugary drinks from the students he taught in his high school science class. Teaching in a low-income public school in San Jose, Tom Gaither, now a first-year medical student at the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine, said students were allowed to bring drinks to class — and many of them brought sugar-laden sodas and energy drinks. “So many of the kids didn’t know how bad surgery beverages were for them,” says Gaither. The Indiana University graduate chose to teach science in public school in between undergraduate school and medical school as part of the "Teach for America" program, a nonprofit that places high achieving undergraduates in schools with high levels of poverty.

His idea for the bill was part of a California Medical Association (CMA) contest for medical school students and residents. The contest, called "My CMA Idea," collected ideas for public health legislation from medical students and residents, allowing future physicians to help craft public policy to improve the health of all Californians. All physicians were invited to vote for and comment on their favorite ideas. Gather’s idea was selected from the top-ranked ideas, and, through this legislation, the idea will hopefully become a reality.

Most kids that attend inner-city schools have higher rates of obesity and drink more sugary drinks, he says. The health implications are felt most acutely by California’s communities of color, which are the largest consumers of sugary drinks. One in three children born after 2000 — and nearly half of Latino and African-American children — will develop type 2 diabetes in their lifetime.

The fact that his students didn’t know that these drinks could be unhealthful prompted him to organize a unit within his regular science class about the effects of diet — particularly sugar — on health. “The science on sugary drinks is very clear,” he says. 

“I thought this was a good way to start a dialog about these drinks,” he said. He hopes that by labeling sugary drinks as hazardous to health that the public will come to understand that choices about food, like smoking tobacco, are important.

CMA introduced his bill (SB 1000) at a press conference on February 13, 2014. The bill, carried by State Senator Bill Monning (D-Carmel), would mandate that a simple warning be placed on the front of all beverage containers with added sweeteners that have 75 or more calories per 12 ounces. The label, developed by a panel of national nutrition and public health experts, would read: “STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.” If passed, the bill would require universal sugary drink labeling by July 1, 2015.

The bill is backed by a coalition that includes CMA, the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, the California Black Health Network, and the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California.

Gaither said sugary drinks are the biggest contributor of added calories in the American diet, responsible for 43% of the 300 additional calories added to the average American’s daily consumption since the 1970s. Drinking just one soda a day can increase an adult’s likelihood of being overweight by 27% and a child’s by 55%. Research shows that a soda or two a day increases the risk of diabetes by 26%.

Gaither has hopes that this bill will spark a dialog about these drinks not just in California, but throughout the rest of the country. “I am hoping that California will set the precedent for the nation." 

Click here for complete information on the legislation can be found here.

Field Poll Shows Broad Voter Support for Health Warning Labels on Sugar Sweetened Beverages

A recent field poll suggests that California voters support the notion of applying health-warning labels on sodas and other sugar sweetened beverages. The poll, which was conducted by The Field Poll and The California Endowment, found that 74% of voters support the requirement to apply health warning labels to sugar sweetened beverages, with 52% of voters “strongly” endorsing the requirement. Support for the labeling of potentially harmful beverages was also bipartisan, with 80% of Democrats, 64% of Republicans, and 75% of nonpartisan voters endorsing the labeling requirement. 

“California voters are now echoing what the scientific and medical communities have been saying for some time, that sugar sweetened beverages pose serious, and unique, health risks and should be treated as such,” says Richard Thorp, MD, president of the California Medical Association.

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