LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - The California lawmaker who spearheaded a high-profile anti-obesity effort across the country's most populous state is now training his sights on sugar-sweetened drinks.
Sen. Alex Padilla, who led a campaign requiring big restaurant chains to disclose calories in meals, said on Thursday he planned to hold hearings in November on the link between soda consumption and obesity.
The announcement from Padilla -- who chairs the California Senate's Select Committee on Obesity and Diabetes -- coincides with the release of a study that shows nearly two-thirds of children aged 12 to 17 gulp down at least one sugar-sweetened beverage daily.
According to the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research and the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, 62 percent of children aged 12 to 17, and 41 percent of children aged 2 to 11, drink at least one sugar-sweetened beverage a day.
"I don't think that most parents truly appreciate the role soda pop has in causing weight gain," Padilla said. "It is unfortunate that soda is actually cheaper than milk and even bottled water in many instances."
California was the first state to pass menu labeling rules and has been among the pioneers of public health initiatives such as bans on artery-clogging trans-fats in restaurant cuisine and on soda sales in public schools.
Experts say the U.S. obesity epidemic has turned into a public health crisis and overweight adolescents are starting to suffer problems that used to plague mainly middle-aged adults -- early heart disease and type 2 diabetes.
SHARP CUTBACK RECOMMENDED
The American Heart Association in August took on the $115 billion soft drink industry, recommending that Americans cut back dramatically on sugar and singling out soft drinks as the top source of "discretionary" sugar calories.
The group said women should eat no more than 100 calories of added processed sugar per day, or six teaspoons (25 grams), while most men should keep it to just 150 calories or nine teaspoons (37.5 grams).
To put that in perspective, one 12-ounce (355-millilitre) can of soda can contain as much as 13 teaspoons (54.6 grams) of sugar, often in the form of high fructose corn syrup.
That's more than half the total 22 teaspoons (90 grams) or 355 calories of added sugar consumed by the average American each day, according to a 2004 government survey.
Being overweight costs, experts say.
Obesity-related diseases account for nearly 10 percent of all medical spending in the United States, or an estimated $147 billion annually. Health experts increasingly are calling for taxes on soft drinks and other sweetened beverages to offset medical costs and fund public health efforts.
"If we are serious about curbing the obesity epidemic, we have to start with the biggest culprit," said Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.
The American Beverage Association has opposed efforts to tax soda and other beverages. An industry group called Americans Against Food Taxes -- whose backers include soft drink maker PepsiCo Inc, the American Beverage Association, the Corn Refiners Association and McDonald's Corp -- has taken to the airwaves with anti-tax advertisements.