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Proposed tax on sugary drinks fails in Assembly panel

Lawmakers in the state Assembly rejected a proposed tax on sodas and other sugary beverages Tuesday.

The proposal, by Assemblyman Richard Bloom (D-Santa Monica), sought to impose a 2-cent fee per fluid ounce of sweetened drinks, which he and his supporters pegged as a major contributor to high rates of obesity and diabetes.

The money raised by the tax would have gone to public health education and prevention programs, with particular focus on diabetes.

"We have been asleep at the wheel in California. It's now well past time for us to aggressively attack this maiming, blinding and often fatal disease," said Dr. Dean Schillinger, a professor of medicine at UC San Francisco, testifying before the Assembly Health Committee.

Lisa Katic, a registered dietitian, spoke against the measure, arguing that other factors -- such as rates of physical activity -- also play a role.

“We all can agree that obesity and related health problems are very serious and complex issues, but it is overly simplistic, not to mention misleading, to single out sugar-sweetened beverages as the driving cause of Type 2 diabetes,” Katic said.

Some legislators said they were concerned that poor people would be disproportionately affected by the tax, and expressed doubt that it would yield significant health benefits.

"I would be more comfortable if I felt like this would change behavior," said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego), who voted against the bill, adding that she believed a tax would "just cost poor people more money." 

Assemblyman Rocky Chavez (R-Oceanside) was even more dismissive of the measure.

"Taxing this industry on this just makes you feel good," Chavez said. "You go back and tell the people 'I did something.' You didn't do a damn thing. The reality is, you didn't change a behavior."

The bill failed in the committee on a 6-10 vote.

The vote marks the second major victory for the beverage industry and its allies in recent weeks. Last month, a bill to require warning labels on the health risks of sugary drinks stalled in the state Senate. 

"It saddens me that the Legislature, once again, failed to address this crisis head-on," Bloom said in a statement Tuesday afternoon. "The evidence shows that epidemic grows worse with time.”

Follow @melmason for more on California government and politics.

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