By Sharon Bernstein
SACRAMENTO, California (Reuters) - A California bill to require sugary soft drinks to carry labels warning of obesity, diabetes and tooth decay passed its first legislative hurdle on Wednesday, the latest move by lawmakers nationwide aimed at persuading people to drink less soda pop.
If enacted, the legislation would put California, which banned sodas and junk food from public schools in 2005, in the vanguard of a growing national movement to curb the consumption of high-caloric beverages that medical experts say are largely to blame for an epidemic of childhood obesity.
"By doing nothing, we are putting Californians at risk," the bill's author, Democratic state senator Bill Monning, said at a hearing on Wednesday. "The minimal burden on industry to comply with this bill is far outweighed by the benefits."
In 2012, then-New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg spearheaded a citywide ban on sales of oversized sugary soft drinks, but the move was declared illegal by a state judge after a legal challenge by makers of soft drinks and a restaurant group. New York's highest court has agreed to hear an appeal.
The California measure, passed on Wednesday by a vote of 5-2 by the state senate's health committee, marks the second time that Monning, who represents the central coastal area around Carmel, has tried to influence consumers' drink choices. Last year, he backed an unsuccessful measure that would have taxed the drinks.
Labeling them instead would educate consumers about the dangers of consuming too much sugar without requiring a controversial measure like a tax.
Efforts to curtail consumption of sugary drinks through taxes and other efforts have met fierce resistance from the U.S. food and beverage industry, which opposes the labeling bill.
Lisa Katic, who testified on behalf of the California Nevada Soft Drink Association, said the proposal, while well intentioned, "will do nothing to prevent obesity, diabetes or tooth decay, and may even make problems worse."
According to Katic, the main source of added sugars in American diets are sandwiches and hamburgers, and not sodas or other soft drinks.
The bill next goes to the senate appropriations committee.
(Reporting by Sharon Bernstein, editing by G Crosse and Dan Whitcomb)