Soft Drink Label Warnings Debated

Consumer activists and soda manufacturers are once again exchanging shots over the health impacts of certain beverages.

Yesterday, claiming that sugary soft drinks are helping to bulk up the calorie count of American children, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a long-time public health advocate, called for the addition of warning labels to soft drinks.

The label suggestions included “Drinking too much non-diet soda may contribute to weight gain,” and “Drink fewer non-diet soft drinks to help prevent tooth decay.”

“We recognize that such messages won’t immediately solve the obesity problem — but they would be a useful reminder to both adults and kids to drink less,” said the group’s executive director, Michael F. Jacobson. The average 13- to 18-year-old boy drinks two 12-ounce cans of soda a day; the average teenage girl, 11/3 cans, Jacobson said.

The suggestions were not met with open arms by soda manufacturers. The American Beverage Association immediately fired back, calling CSPI’s labeling suggestions “shallow gestures.”

“Current Nutrition Facts panels and labels on soft drinks already provide consumers with key information they need to make the beverage choices that are right for them, including information on calories, sugar, caffeine, sodium, and other contents,” said Susan Neely, executive director of the ABA.

The ABA wasn’t the only organization representing the beverage industry to take issue with CSPI. The Center for Consumer Freedom, which is supported by restaurant chains, ran advertisements attacking CSPI in several national newspapers, again stating that the organization did not account for consumers’ ability to make their own decisions.

But the pervasiveness of soft drinks makes it tough for consumers to be vigilant, according to Jacobson.

“What was once a rare treat in a small serving is now served up morning, noon, and night, virtually everywhere Americans happen to be,” he said. “How did a solution of high-fructose corn syrup, water, and artificial flavors come to be the default beverage?”

Part of the reason is that it is in the media, according to government agencies who are hosting a two-day conference regarding regulating the use of “product placements” in children’s television shows. While extending existing regulations isn’t on the table, food manufacturers are hearing the drumbeat of reform, and are falling in line, to some extent.

The Grocery Manufacturers’ association, while decrying the notion of the labeling program, said it would call for stricter voluntary oversight of ads aimed at children, and would ask advertisers – who currently police themselves via a six-person Children’s Advertising Review Unit – to kick in more money for an expanded program.