The metal tab pulls back with a familiar click-click-hissssss as bubbles rush to the top of the can. The alluring scent wafts through the air, a familiar smell that hints at what’s to come.
If you’re drinking a 20-ounce Mountain Dew, you’re consuming the equivalent of 18 teaspoons of sugar. A same-sized Pepsi equals 16 teaspoons, and a Coke comes out to 15. A 16-ounce Rockstar Energy Drink slams more than 15 teaspoons.
Here’s the problem with what you’re drinking, some scientists say: Humans are not biologically designed to deal with that much liquid sugar at once. Since there’s no digestion involved, it enters the bloodstream and is absorbed more quickly than food.
As it does, the sugar overwhelms the pancreas, the organ tasked with regulating blood sugar, and over time wears it out. Welcome to Type 2 diabetes.
Harold Goldstein, a doctor of public health, is the founding executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy (CCPHA), a Davis-based nonprofit whose mission is to look for solutions to what scientists say is an alarming increase in diabetes and obesity in California.
About five years ago, the CPHA commissioned a study by the UC Center for Weight and Health to see if there was a correlation between obesity and sugary beverage consumption.
The UC study found that Americans on average were consuming 278 more calories a day than they were about 2 1/2 decades before, with 43 percent of those calories defined as new beverage calories.
“I had no idea what the answer was going to be, but what they came up with was simple and compelling,” Goldstein says. “I was stunned. It was twice as much as I guessed.”
We weren’t just eating more. We were drinking more. And mostly, we were drinking more sugar, a phenomenon that coincided with the “soda wars” of the ’70s and ’80s, where Coca Cola and Pepsi went head-to-head on television advertising campaigns. It also coincided with an increase in portion sizes: In the ’70s and ’80s, a 12-ounce can was the norm. Now, fast-food restaurants offer 32-ounce cups with free refills.
Another surprising statistic, this from the National Institutes of Health, via Goldstein: A quarter of teenagers, or 23 percent, have pre-diabetes, an increase from 9 percent just 10 years ago.
“These beverages are tricking the body,” Goldstein says. “The pancreas goes wild and the liver says, ‘Look at all this. I’d better save it for a rainy day and turn it into fat.’ There is a cohort of teens that will be entering the health-care system with higher rates of diabetes than ever.”
The grim statistics are why state Sen. Bill Monning, a Carmel Democrat, backed by CCPHA and the Health Officers Association of California, continues a battle with the beverage industry.
On Feb. 11, Monning introduced Senate Bill 203, which would have required a warning label to be placed on the packaging of sugar-sweetened beverages including sodas, sweet teas, sports drinks and energy drinks. The label would have been required on drinks with 75 or more calories per 12 ounces and would read as follows: “STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING—Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.”
However, the beverage industry was willing not only to put a lot of muscle and money behind the effort to stop him, but also to try to stop information they deem harmful to their industry from reaching the public—and their efforts paid off on April 29, when the bill was effectively killed by Senate Health Committee. Only four of the nine members voted for the bill; one senator voted against it, with four abstaining.
Last June, on the same day Bill Monning’s previous labeling bill died in the state Assembly Health Committee, PepsiCo spent $2,200 on a catered event for 13 legislators and more than three-dozen legislative staff members from the Latino Legislative Caucus, as the Sacramento Bee reported. Of the legislators who attended, two voted against SB 1000, the previous iteration of the labeling bill.
In 2014, the American Beverage Association California Political Action Committee, also known as the American Beverage Association Strategic Advocacy Fund, spent $11.8 million on various candidates and measures. Of that, $9.24 million went to the successful opposition of a soda tax floated before San Francisco voters. The group also spent $2.43 million to defeat a Berkeley soda tax, which passed despite fierce industry opposition.
The PAC donated $4,100 to Luis Alejo, D-Watsonville, who this year became head of the Latino Legislative Caucus, and the same to the Senate campaign of Ben Hueso, the San Diego Democrat who is vice chair of the Latino Legislative Caucus.
It put $27,200 into Gov. Jerry Brown’s campaign and $3,000 into Attorney General Kamala Harris’, too. It gave $46,000 to the Democratic State Central Committee of California and $10,000 to the California Republican Party.
Fast-forward to this year. The PAC started 2015 with $504,000 in the bank. The spokesman for the Latino Legislative Caucus PAC and foundation, Roger Salazar, is now the spokesman for CalBev, also known as the California-Nevada Beverage Association, the trade association representing the non-alcoholic beverage industry in California and Nevada. The Cal-Nev Soft Drink Association PAC spent $37,371 on various campaigns in 2014, mostly as $1,000 contributions to individual legislators.
In the hours and days that followed Monning’s announcement of his labeling bill, CalBev went on the offensive.
In a written statement, CalBev Executive Director Bob Achermann said obesity and diabetes are more complicated than a warning label. Monning’s bill is “misguided,” and singles out soft drinks while ignoring sugar-rich cupcakes, donuts and processed foods. It’s also riddled with loopholes that will confuse consumers, according to the statement.
For example, the release says, fountain sodas purchased at restaurants with table service will be exempt from labeling. The release also calls out milk-based products like Frappuccinos and lattes, which contain as much sugar and more calories than soft drinks.
Salazar says the industry has taken on an initiative to reduce sugar-sweetened consumption 20 percent by 2025.
“There are ways you can have a collaborative effort, but bills like this seek to demonize an industry with a shocking label when there are other, broader causes to obesity and diabetes we should be looking at,” Salazar says. “It’s about balancing calories, and there’s no question we support programs that educate people about nutrition and exercise.”
But the statement that there could be a collaborative effort came as news to Monning.
“They haven’t proposed any compromises to us that would work for them,” Monning says. “I think we’ve maintained open and cordial conversation. Their position on labeling is: They provide caloric information on the label, and consumers have that at their fingertips.”
Monning acknowledges other sources of sugar are out there, but says none are as dangerous.
“While sugar is in other foods,” he says, “medical evidence is clear that liquid consumption of sugar is more immediately damaging. When you eat it, more is eliminated through digestion.”
A version of this story first appeared in the Monterey County Weekly.