California bills would tax nondiet sodas, require radiation labels on cell phones

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Enjoy a sugary drink every now and then? In California, unless you switch to diet, it could cost you a few extra pennies.

And thinking of buying a new cell phone? California nervous types better do it now — before the state requires retailers to display in big numbers how much radiation the devices emit.

A pair of bills unveiled in California’s Legislature on Thursday seek to dramatically shift residents’ relationships with two American staples: our pop cans and our phones.

Citing skyrocketing rates of obesity, state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, has proposed taxing sweet drinks sold in California — at a penny per teaspoon of sugar — to help fund prevention programs. For the average can of Pepsi, that would add an extra nine or 10 cents. A bottle of Gatorade would cost about 15 cents more. But Florez hopes the plan could raise $1.5 billion a year for cash-strapped schools and cities.

"I don’t want obesity to be the legacy that we leave to our children," Florez told reporters. His bill is sponsored by the California Center for Public Health Advocacy.

Meanwhile, Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, introduced his cell-phone labeling bill, saying consumers "have a right to know" about radiation — even as he acknowledged that more research is needed on whether phones actually pose any danger. The bill, which echoes similar proposals in San Francisco and Maine, was announced alongside an environmental group’s annual report on phone radiation levels.

California last year began requiring restaurants to post calorie counts in menu items, and the state bans schools from serving trans fats and selling sodas.

But whether either of the new bills will make its way to the governor’s desk remains uncertain. Both face a gantlet of committee hearings and legislative debates starting next month.

Among the hurdles, especially from Republicans, will be questions about "nanny government" and whether the bills may hamper job creation.

"Government doesn’t do a good job of operating very many programs," said Larry Venus, spokesman for the incoming Senate Republican leader, Bob Dutton of Inland Empire. Venus noted these kind of proposals "generally have a negative impact on business."

Both bills also will face strong challenges from industry groups.

Already Thursday, a group called the Center for Consumer Freedom, which lobbies on behalf of hospitality industries, weighed in to dispute that sugary drinks and obesity are linked.

"It’s only the overconsumption of calories, whether from soda or other foods and drinks, that lead people to put on extra pounds," said J. Justin Wilson, a representative for the group, in a statement. "Soda is not a unique cause of obesity."

But Florez — who argues obesity-related health care costs California $41 billion a year — points to several recent studies that argue just the opposite.

A study by the University of California-Los Angeles in particular found California adults who drink at least a soda a day are 27 percent more likely to be overweight and that the state’s average adult consumes 39 pounds of sugar from soda every year. Other studies show nearly two-thirds of adolescents regularly toss back soda.

Those concerns were raised last fall during a special committee hearing in Los Angeles, in which senators sought testimony from soda company executives and researchers. Sen. Elaine Alquist, D-Santa Clara, reportedly told executives that "to be told that all calories are equal, that sweetened soda pop is not contributing to obesity ... the public is not stupid."

But for the cell phone bill, any science linking phone radiation to physical symptoms remains murky at best. While some scientists have raised questions about prolonged cell phone use, no smoking gun study has yet to emerge — even as the devices grow more powerful and more ubiquitous.

Trade groups and the federal government both maintain the devices emit radiation well within acceptable health standards. Still, as the backers of Leno’s bill note, some European countries, including Britain and Germany, have issued warnings, especially for children.

Leno’s bill wouldn’t go that far. It would only require the amount of radiation be posted, for the sake of comparison shopping.And here’s something to keep in mind: With some pricier devices, like the iPhone, giving off less radiation than cheaper phones like the Motorola Droid, all those pennies you’d save by not drinking soda could come in handy.