What is likely to become one of the signature bills in this year's session of the California Legislature could also very likely become an object of pop culture ridicule. Just ask former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
Remember Jon Stewart's takedown when the mayor proposed banning the sale of sugary drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces? "This plan makes your asinine look big," Stewart chided, as the diminutive comedian warmed up to a short joke about the 5-foot-8 Bloomberg. "Mr. Mayor, I know people like you and I can be intimidated by these large-size drinks. We might see them as a drowning hazard."
Now, think what the late-night comedians might soon be saying about a bill proposed last week by state Sen. Bill Monning that would make California the first state to require a health warning label on containers of sugar-sweetened drinks. For starters, one might imagine a comparison with the FDA-mandated label on Nytol sleeping pills: "May cause drowsiness."
Any idiot knows that Mountain Dew isn't a health-food drink, the ridiculers might say, and even if they don't the nutritional label makes it perfectly clear that it isn't a can of carrot juice. Why should nanny government require soda-makers to add a label that states the obvious: "Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay"?
All of this might be good fun except that the obesity crisis isn't funny.
There certainly was no laughing last week when Xavier Morales, executive director of the Latino Coalition for a Healthy California, joined Monning, D-Carmel, at a news conference announcing the introduction of the labeling bill.
"My community experiences some of the highest rates of obesity and diabetes in the country," he said. "Those born after 2000 have a more than 50 percent chance of developing diabetes in their lifetimes," he said.
He then added a personal perspective. "My own family has a history of diabetes. We've dealt with amputations -- the fingers, the toes, the knees. Then the colostomy bag."
A day earlier, at a hearing before the Senate Health Committee, Dr. Paveljit Bindra, chief medical officer for a Los Angeles County medical group, testified about a study of patients at the group's hospital. About 85 percent of the time, he said, there is at least one patient who weighs from 400 to 500 pounds. About half the time, there is at least one patient who weighs more than 500 pounds.
Also at that hearing, Patricia Crawford, director of UC Berkeley's Center for Weight and Health, testified that the U.S. rate of childhood diabetes is unprecedented in the world. "There are 23 percent of children with blood levels right on the edge of diabetes," she said. "How high does that number have to be before we take some very significant action?"
She said that the mass consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages "is the elephant in the room everywhere."
"I had said so many times that a calorie is a calorie is a calorie," Crawford said. "And then along comes this sugar-sweetened beverage data."
What it shows, she testified, is that sugar ingested through what she called "the liquid delivery system" does not metabolize in the liver and does not satiate the body's desire for more foods and fats. She cited data from the U.S. Institute of Medicine that estimates 20 percent of all the excess pounds of Americans are directly attributable to sugar-sweetened beverages.
Is a health-warning label on sugary drinks really a laughable idea?
It appears that the explosive increase in obesity and diabetes over the past few decades has been one of those frog-in-hot-water situations: The changes have come so gradually that no one reacted with alarm.
Compare this proposed warning-label bill with a law that the Legislature quickly and without controversy approved last year in the wake of an accident that killed five women who had been trapped inside a limousine that caught fire.
Within five months, a bill that requires limousines to be equipped with two extra emergency exits was introduced, passed both houses of the Legislature and was signed by Gov. Jerry Brown.
It's relatively easy for the political system to respond to a health-and-safety hazard that contributes to the tragic and instantaneous deaths of five people.
Over the next few months, Californians will witness that, with the soft-drink lobby fully engaged, it will be considerably more difficult to adopt a much more modest response to a health-and-safety hazard that is slowly and insidiously contributing to the premature deaths of thousands.