California lawmakers want to add tax on sugary drinks to discourage consumption

State lawmakers are trying again to discourage the consumption of sugary beverages, proposing a tax, warning labels, and a ban on soda displays near checkout lines among other measures on Wednesday.

The five bills address what the Democratic lawmakers call a public health crisis leading to an increase in obesity, diabetes, heart disease and other ills.

“The soda industry is the new tobacco industry,” said Assemblyman David Chiu of San Francisco as he promoted his measure that would bar restaurants from selling soda in cups larger than 16 ounces (.5 liters). “This is an industry that has used marketing and sales tactics to victimize low income communities, communities of color throughout our country.”

One of four California adults is now obese, he said, a 40-percent increase over two decades. More than half of Californians are overweight and more than half have either diabetes or pre-diabetes. The average American drinks nearly 50 gallons (190 liters) of sugary beverages a year, he said, consuming 39 pounds (17.5 kilograms) of extra sugar.

Another bill would ban soda discount coupons that Assemblyman Rob Bonta of Oakland said can result in “soda actually being cheaper than bottled water.”

Assembly Republicans suggested the proposals are Democrats’ latest attempt at nanny government.

“What’s next — criminalizing pizzas over 18 inches?” they said in a statement.

The proposals include a fee on sugary beverages that would take a two-thirds vote to approve. Health groups also are circulating petitions to put a tax of 2 cents per ounce on the 2020 ballot.

Several measures have failed repeatedly in previous years, including the tax proposed by Assemblyman Richard Bloom of Santa Monica. He said details of his proposal are still being worked out, but a 2 cents per ounce tax would raise a projected $2 billion annually for prevention efforts.

The beverage industry says such a tax would fall harder on those with lower incomes and would have uncertain health benefits, citing comments from the state’s nonpartisan legislative analyst.

California Hispanic Chamber of Commerce President and CEO Julian Canete criticized the package on behalf of the beverage industry, saying that soda makers have already done much to discourage over-consumption. He promoted better health education over a tax.

The American Beverage Association, which represents Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and others, said it is engaged in an “unprecedented commitment to fight obesity” by offering more choices and smaller portion sizes with less or no sugar.

Aside from soda, lawmakers said they are targeting sports drinks, sweetened coffee and tea, and other sugary beverages.

Last month, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked a San Francisco city ordinance requiring health warnings on soda advertisements, saying it violates constitutionally protected commercial speech.

The justices also said the soda warnings aren’t based on established fact, citing Food and Drug Administration statements that sugar is “generally recognized as safe” when not consumed to excess.

Sen. Bill Monning of Carmel equated his proposed warning label to those required for cigarettes, and said he would welcome a court challenge.

Meanwhile, the American Cancer Society, American Lung Association, American Heart Association and other tobacco opponents announced their support for bills restricting the sale of flavored tobacco products, including menthol cigarettes and candy and fruit flavored e-cigarettes.