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Watchdog group wants FDA to put health warnings on sodas

WASHINGTON—Sodas should follow alcohol and cigarettes and bear a federally mandated warning label detailing the dangers of consuming too many, a food watchdog group said Wednesday in filing a petition with the Food and Drug Administration.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has fought for clear nutrition labeling on foods and published information about the poor nutritional content of fast food, says Americans, especially young ones, are getting too much refined sugar from soft drinks.

Sweetened drinks are the "quintessential junk food: all calories, no nutrients," said Michael Jacobson, the executive director of the CSPI.

The CSPI also re-released its 1998 "Liquid Candy" report on soda consumption Wednesday, updated with the most recent government dietary data, from 1999 to 2002. While there had been a slight overall decline in the consumption of soft drinks, teens were drinking more sodas than ever, the CSPI found.

Among the 85 percent of teens ages 13 to 18 who drink soft drinks, boys consumed an average of 32 ounces and girls an average of 23 ounces every day, making up about 15 percent of their total daily calories, according to the report.

Labels on soda packaging should contain warnings about obesity, tooth decay and diabetes, which the CSPI says are all potential complications of excessive soft-drink consumption. The group released sample labels that read "To help protect your waistline and your teeth, consider drinking diet sodas and water" and "The U.S. Government recommends that you drink less (non-diet) soda to help prevent weight gain, tooth decay, and other health problems."

FDA spokeswoman Kimberly Rawlings said the agency couldn't say whether warning labels would be enacted until the petition was thoroughly reviewed.

Not everyone agrees that labels are a good idea.

"This is nothing but another freedom-sucking proposal from CSPI," The Center for Individual Freedom said in a news release. "The nutrition nannies are at it again."

The Center for Consumer Freedom ran full-page ads in The Washington Post and The Washington Times on Wednesday, accusing the CSPI of being a "hysterical" group that uses "junk science, scare tactics, sensationalism, sound bites, doom and gloom prophecies, sanctimony (and) self-righteousness" to advance its views.

Jacobson derided both consumer-freedom groups as funded by food corporations—a charge they don't deny—to fight better nutrition labeling and regulation that could hurt their business.

Although the FDA has acted on CSPI proposals in the past, Jacobson said finalizing rules on trans-fatty acids took the agency 10 years. Although he thinks that federally mandated soda labeling could happen, he expects it to be enacted and litigated more widely on a state level first.

Getting such rules passed "takes forever," Jacobson said.

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050713 SOFTDRINKS

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