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Senate OKs bill to require warning labels on soda

The state Senate voted 21-13 Thursday to approve a bill that would require warning labels on the front of all bottles and cans of soda and other sugary drinks sold in California.

sodaSB 1000 by state Sen. Bill Monning, D-Carmel, now goes to the Assembly. If it eventually becomes law, all sugary drink containers would display a warning label – developed by a national panel of nutrition and public health experts – by July 1, 2015, reading: “STATE OF CALIFORNIA SAFETY WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.”

“Today’s vote is a major step toward warning people about the profoundly harmful effects of consuming liquid sugar,” Dr. Harold Goldstein of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, a sponsor of the bill, said in a news release. “SB 1000 supports consumers’ right to know the facts about diabetes, undiluted by beverage industry spin.”

The bill’s supporters say overwhelming scientific research shows that liquid sugar is uniquely harmful because it gets absorbed so quickly – much faster than solid food – overloading the pancreas and causing the liver to store the sugar as fat, leading to fatty liver disease. This contributes directly to diabetes, which has tripled in the U.S. over the last 30 years.

The California-Nevada Beverage Association issued a statement Thursday saying that “putting government warning labels on more than 500 beverages will do nothing to change personal behaviors or teach people about healthy lifestyles. The last thing California needs is more warning labels. Senate Bill 1000 will only feed the confusion surrounding hundreds of beverages without changing personal habits.”

Foes of the bill say the state shouldn’t waste time and money as the federal Food and Drug Administration undertakes its first major nutrition-label update in 20 years. They also say the bill has confusing exemptions, and obesity and diabetes have many risk factors such as genetics, age, stress and even lack of sleep.

But a recent Field Poll found 74 percent of California voters, including a majority of Republicans and independents, support warning labels on sugary drinks.

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Tom Steyer’s next big push: ‘Too Small to Fail’

Yesterday’s editions carried my story about what the future might hold for billionaire hedge fund mogul Tom Steyer, fresh off his win with Proposition 39 and about to turn his full attention to public policy.

Today we’re starting to see what Steyer’s next big push will be.

Tom Steyer (photo by Karl Mondon)As described in a Mercury-News op-ed piece he co-wrote, the Center for the Next Generation – a philanthropic effort founded last year by Steyer and his brother, Common Sense Media Founder and CEO Jim Steyer – today is launching Too Small to Fail, a national movement to focus attention on the need to invest in children and address the challenges they face in leading healthy, happy, productive lives, particularly in areas of education, technology, health, parents’ work lives and social mobility.

Too Small to Fail’s website went live today, and this ad – produced by Obama advisor Jim Margolis and Bush advisor Mark McKinnon – has begun airing on Fox, MSNBC and CNN:

http://youtu.be/U_NipLEsg4s

From Too Small to Fail’s website:

The world is changing faster than any parent can predict. We have 21st century technology and a 20th century mindset; the slickest smartphones with the dullest outlook for our kids.

Parents work longer hours for smaller paychecks. Kids are weighed down by schools that don’t work and bombarded by media meant for people twice their age. Governments across the country have done less and less to lay a foundation for future success – a future where we build our society from the smallest up and where all kids have the opportunity to thrive.

Too Small to Fail is a movement. One built to change the conversation around kids in this country. We mean to create a groundswell to prompt Americans to rise to the challenges facing our nation’s children.

We can build a stronger future for our children.

The site indicates partners participating in Too Small to Fail include the Children’s Defense Fund – California, Common Sense Media, the Families and Work Institute, First Focus, Moms Rising, Opportunity Nation and Voices for America’s Children.

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Boxer urges FDA to crack down on fish fraud

Something might be fishy at your supermarket’s seafood counter – and not in a good way – so U.S. Sen. Barbara Boxer wants the Food and Drug Administration to step up enforcement efforts.

Boxer, D-Calif., sent a letter today to FDA Commissioner Dr. Margaret Hamburg urging the agency to crack down on an alarmingly high rate of seafood fraud, where fish and other seafood is deliberately mislabeled and sold to consumers.

“It is unacceptable that proven fraud is occurring on such a widespread basis,” Boxer wrote. “Seafood fraud is not only deceptive marketing, but it can also pose serious health concerns, particularly for pregnant women seeking to limit exposure to heavy metals or individuals with serious allergies to certain types of fish.”

International ocean conservation organization Oceana since last year has collected fish samples from supermarkets, restaurants, and sushi venues in cities across the nation and had them genetically tested. In Miami and Fort Lauderdale, 31 percent of the seafood tested by the group was found to be mislabeled; in Los Angeles and Orange counties, 55 percent of the seafood tested was mislabeled.

So many people aren’t getting what they paid for, and worse yet, pregnant women and people with certain allergies are being misled into eating things they shouldn’t. “Consumers should not have to question the safety of their seafood,” Boxer wrote to Hamburg.

About 86 percent of seafood consumed in the United States comes from other nations, yet a 2009 Government Accountability Office report found that only 2 percent of all seafood imports are inspected by FDA, and just 0.01 percent are specifically inspected for mislabeling. Boxer’s letter asks for more information about the FDA’s inspection process, including what steps it will take to improve enforcement to protect the consumers’ safety. “To effectively address this problem, we need better traceability and enforcement throughout the entire chain of sale, from bait to plate,” she wrote.

Read Boxer’s letter, after the jump…
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Global panel touts drug reforms to stem HIV/AIDS

It’s hard to paint former U.S. Secretary of State George Shultz of San Francisco as a drug-loving, latter-day hippie with no regard for the law.

George Shultz (AP photo)Shultz and former Fed Chairman Paul Volcker, along with 18 other international luminaries, are part of a commission that’s calling for radical changes to the war on drugs in order to stem the tide of new HIV infections.

The report from the Global Commission on Drug Policy comes in advance of the International AIDS Conference, the world’s largest gathering of HIV/AIDS experts, which is being held next month in the U.S. for the first time in 22 years.

The global drug war drives the HIV pandemic among people who use drugs and their sexual partners, the report notes: An estimated 33 million people worldwide are living with HIV, and injection drug use accounts for one-third of new HIV infections outside of sub-Saharan Africa.

The report describes the failure of drug law enforcement policies in reducing global drug supply; for example, the worldwide supply of illicit opiates such as heroin has increased by more than 380 percent in recent decades.

Instead, the commission concludes, nations should be scaling up proven ways of reducing HIV infection such as sterile syringe distribution, safer injecting facilities, and prescription heroin programs. “Failure to take these steps is criminal,” the report states.

Nations that treat addiction as a health issue are winning the fight against HIV, the report notes: In Australia and European countries such as Portugal and Switzerland, newly diagnosed HIV infections have been nearly eliminated among people who use drugs, just as vertical transmission of HIV has been eliminated in countries where broad access to prevention of mother-to-child transmission of the virus is available.

But nations including the U.S., China, Russia and Thailand have ignored scientific evidence and resisted the implementation of evidence-based HIV prevention programs, with devastating consequences, the report says. For example, about one in 100 Russian adults is now infected with HIV; here in the United States, Congress recently reinstated a longstanding ban on the use of federal funds for syringe exchange programs, meaning more users are likely to share needles and spread disease.

The report says the costly and wasteful drug war as it’s being fought today drives drug users underground, away from HIV testing and HIV prevention services and into high-risk environments.

The commission is urging national governments to halt the practice of arresting and imprisoning people who use drugs but do no harm to others, and to measure their drug policy success by indicators such as reduced transmission rates for HIV and other infectious diseases, fewer overdose deaths, reduced drug market violence, fewer individuals incarcerated and lowered rates of problematic substance use.

In addition to Shultz and Volcker, the commission also includes the former presidents of Mexico, Poland, Colombia, Brazil, Chile and Switzerland; the former prime minister of Greece; Virgin Group founder Sir Richard Branson; various former United Nations officials; and others.

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Newt Gingrich on Medicare, then and now

Newt Gingrich was thought to have doomed his then-nascent presidential campaign last May when he stiff-armed his own party’s budget plan on “Meet the Press.”

“I don’t think right-wing social engineering is any more desirable than left-wing social engineering. I don’t think imposing radical change from the right or the left is a very good way for a free society to operate. I think we need a national conversation to get to a better Medicare system with more choices for seniors,” Gingrich had said.

“I think that that is too big a jump,” he had said of the House GOP budget proposal to move Medicare from a system of direct government payment to doctors to one in which private insurance companies would manage a voucher-like system for seniors.

But Gingrich seems 100 percent OK with the new plan being rolled out by House Budget Committee Chairman Paul Ryan, R-Wisc. That plan includes a proposal – made jointly with Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore. – for an optional premium support plan, which according to them would “strengthen traditional Medicare by permanently maintaining it as a guaranteed and viable option for all of our nation’s retirees. At the same time, our plan would expand choice for seniors by allowing the private sector to compete with Medicare in an effort to offer seniors better quality and more-affordable health care choices.”

Here’s what Gingrich said today:

Newt Gingrich“The House GOP budget is a courageous plan that correctly understands the key to returning to a balanced budget is robust economic growth, spending control and bold entitlement reform, including the Ryan-Wyden optional premium support plan in Medicare. Chairman Ryan and the House Republican’s leadership stands in stark contrast with that of the Democratic Senate, which has once again, failed to produce a budget.”

“My plan to grow the economy and balance the budget differs in details but shares the same core principles as Ryan’s impressive effort. As president I would work very closely with Chairman Ryan to reform government and balance the budget.”

Yet Bay Area Democrats see little if any difference between what Ryan proposed last year and what he’s proposing this week. Rep. Pete Stark, D-Fremont, the ranking member on the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee that oversees Medicare, said:

Pete Stark“This year’s Republican Budget, once again, is a plan to dismantle the Medicare guarantee that Americans overwhelmingly support and that seniors and people with disabilities rely on.

“The Republican claim that their budget would preserve Medicare is both irresponsible and disingenuous. Beneficiaries would be given a voucher — crafted to decrease in value over time — to buy private insurance or try to stay in traditional Medicare.

“This Republican scheme would not only shift health care costs to seniors as their vouchers diminish, but will end Medicare as we know it. Private plans will cherry pick healthier folks, leaving the more sickly and elderly in what amounts to a faint memory of traditional Medicare as costs rise beyond their reach.

“Importantly, the Republican budget would not require plans to provide defined benefits as Medicare does today, thus ending the Medicare guarantee that has defined the program for decades.

“What’s more, the Republican budget would undo the consumer protections provided by Medicare and put private health insurers back in charge.
“Enacting the Republican plan would be devastating to the health and financial security of America’s senior citizens and people with disabilities. I will fight this plan to take America backward.”

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, D-San Francisco, said Ryan’s plan lets Medicare “wither on the vine … The American people have already rejected this plan before – and this year will be no different. Americans’ priorities are clear: Republicans must work with Democrats to preserve and strengthen Medicare, not dismantle it.”

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Pete Stark jabs at Gingrich with ‘NEWT Act’

Rep. Pete Stark gave Republican presidential candidate Newt Gingrich a political poke in the eye today by introducing a bill to close a loophole that lets certain self-employed people – including lobbyists – lower their Medicare payroll tax liability by calling their earnings profits or dividends rather than wages.

Pete StarkStark, D-Fremont – the ranking Democrat on the Ways and Means Health Subcommittee, which oversees Medicare – calls it the Narrowing Exceptions for Withholding Taxes Act.

Yes, that’s right: The NEWT Act.

The bill, Stark says, was inspired by Gingrich’s recently released 2010 tax returns, which showed he used the loophole to save an estimated $69,000 in Medicare taxes.

“It seems Gingrich is continuing to do his part — in his own infamous words — to let Medicare ‘wither on the vine.’” Stark said in a news release. “By taking full advantage of a tax loophole often used by wealthy self-employed lawyers and lobbyists to slash their tax liability, Gingrich is happy to undermine Medicare. This tax dodge throws cold water on his feigned concern for the future of Medicare.”

This provision passed the House of Representatives in 2009 as part of HR 4213, the American Jobs and Closing Tax Loopholes Act of 2010; at the time, the Joint Commission on Taxation estimated that closing this loophole would save taxpayers $11.2 billion over ten years.

Newt GingrichAll earners are subject to a 2.9 percent tax on wages, which helps fund Medicare, but employee-shareholders at S corporations can use an existing loophole to shield earnings from the Medicare tax by classifying them as profits or dividends instead of as wages. For 2010, Gingrich reported $444,327 of his earnings as wages from Gingrich Holdings, Inc. and Gingrich Productions. By classifying another $2.4 million in profits or dividends he avoided paying an estimated $69,000 in Medicare taxes.

Stark’s NEWT Act would expand the income categories that are subject to Medicare payroll taxes so employee-shareholders of S corporations could no longer avoid paying this tax by reporting artificially low wage income and correspondingly higher dividends or profits. Certain employee-shareholders of S corporations would have to calculate their Medicare payroll tax obligation based on their share of the S corporation’s profits or dividends, not just income reported as wages. The individuals subject to the provision are the employee-shareholders of a professional service business where the principal assets of that business are the skills and reputations of three or fewer individuals.

The bill targets the S corporations that have been identified as the most likely to abuse the system, Stark said: professional service businesses engaged in health, lobbying, law, engineering, architecture, accounting, actuarial science, performing arts, consulting, athletics, brokerage services, or investment advice or management.

The Government Accountability Office estimates that in the 2003 and 2004 tax years, individuals who used S corporations underreported more than $23 billion in wage income; the median misreported amount was $20,127.

Stark’s news release cited a New York Times article to illustrate that it’s a bipartisan problem: Former U.S. Senator and 2004 Democratic vice presidential nominee John Edwards used the same method to avoid $591,112 in Medicare payroll taxes over four years in the late 1990s.