By Doug Oakley
Three-quarters of California voters support health warning labels on sodas and sugary drink products, similar to those on cigarettes, according to a Field Poll released Wednesday, which asked the question for the first time.
The poll, conducted from Nov. 14 through Dec. 5, comes just days after the introduction of a bill in the state legislature calling for health warning labels on sugary drinks.
The telephone poll of 1,002 registered voters found 74 percent favor a soda warning that says: "Studies show that daily consumption of sodas and other sugary drinks contributes to diabetes, obesity and tooth decay."
The idea of a warning label could be more promising than a tax on the drinks for health advocates who want soda more heavily regulated.
The city of Berkeley is considering asking voters for a tax on sodas to fund diabetes and obesity prevention and treatment even though similar proposals failed by huge margins in Richmond and El Monte in Southern California in 2012.
The California Endowment, a health care foundation, has commissioned the Field Poll about a tax on sodas to pay for prevention and treatment programs of diabetes and obesity since 2011.
But this year it decided to ask about a warning label, said Daniel Zingale, a senior vice president, because "it's been part of the conversation" in recent months and was not specifically tied to the bill recently introduced by state Sen. Bill Monning, D-Santa Cruz.
"We were curious how a warning label would compare to a soda tax idea," Zingale said. "It's a different approach."
A statement from CalBev, the industry association group that includes Coca-Cola, Dr Pepper Snapple Group and Pepsi, said soda is not the only problem when it comes to diabetes and obesity.
"We agree that obesity is a serious and complex issue," the statement said. "However, it is misleading to suggest that soft drink consumption is uniquely responsible for weight gain. According to government data, foods, not beverages are the top source of sugars in the American diet."
This year, the poll again asked about a tax on sodas which got a 67 percent thumbs up vote and has polled in the "mid to high 60s" since the endowment first commissioned the Field Poll in 2011, Zingale said.
So why are the Field Poll numbers so different from what happens on election day?
"The tax idea tends to poll very well, but it has a difficult time when it comes to election day and that is because big soda has outspent opponents by a huge margin," Zingale said. "And a tax is more complicated. You are asking people to trust the government with those tax resources. It's definitely more complicated than a straight forward warning label."
And that's why he thinks the warning label may be the area to focus on now.
"Those tobacco warnings made a major difference in raising awareness of the health hazards of tobacco and contributed to California having the lowest rates of lung cancer in the nation," Zingale said. "A parent is going to be less comfortable handing their child a product with a health warning label on it. A lot of people will ask: Why sodas and not other junk foods? Sodas are in a category of their own when it comes to diabetes and obesity."
Contact Doug Oakley at 925-234-1699. Follow him at Twitter.com/douglasoakley.