San Francisco’s Unprecedented Beverage Law: The Beginning Of A Healthy Eating Revolution?

SF Gate was the first to report that San Francisco courts have passed a law requiring all sweetened beverage advertisements within San Francisco to feature hefty warnings as to the threats sugary drinks can pose to health, and the implications of what this will likely mean for the food and beverage industry — as well as the overall health of urban-dwelling Americans – are absolutely huge.

Starting on July 25, according to Food Ingredients 1st, at least 20 percent of the area of any sweetened drink ad found within the San Francisco city limits must be reserved for text that reads “WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. This is a message from the City and County of San Francisco.”

San Francisco residents first heard about the proposal to require warnings on sugary drink advertisements early last year.

As the city pointed out at the time, such drinks lead to a variety of health problems, from obesity to tooth decay, and imposing a law to make consumers more aware of that fact would likely contribute to a healthier community. This is especially true for San Francisco’s black and Latino communities, a judge would later point out, who often suffer from lower general income and education levels.

Of course, the American Beverage Co. (ABC) – a conglomerate made up of Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc., Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc., and other beverage companies – was not about to let San Francisco’s law that could damage their sales pass without a fight, and they argued in court that the proposed law was unjust.

“The City is trying to ensure that there is no free marketplace of ideas, but instead only a government-imposed, one-sided public ‘dialogue’ on the topic,” the court-filed complaint argues, claiming that the law would violate free speech rights under the First Amendment if passed.

It took until yesterday for a San Francisco judge named Edward Chen to finally rule against the beverage companies and pass the ordinance.

“The warning required by the city ordinance is factual and accurate,” said Chen.

“The city has a reasonable basis for requiring the warning given its interest in public health and safety.”

Chen is indeed right that San Francisco is known as a very health-conscious city — Forbes reports San Franciscans suffer from the lowest obesity rates in the country.

San Francisco has even served as a pioneer for urban healthy living by passing laws that promote good health that later rippled out to other cities. For example, San Francisco was the first city to require a “healthy foods tax,” which requires larger restaurants to help pay for the city’s healthcare program.

Could San Francisco’s new ordinance be the beginning of a revolution in the food and beverage industry. Could this trend ripple out to other cities and even escalate to require warnings on unhealthy food packaging or ban unhealthy foods altogether?

Well, not if the ABC has anything to say about it, and they have certainly been very vocal about San Francisco’s new ordinance.

“We are disappointed in the Court’s ruling on our motion for a preliminary injunction as we believe that the City of San Francisco’s mandate violates the constitutional rights of a select group by unfairly discriminating against one particular category of products, based on one ingredient found in many other products.”

In other words, the corporations are arguing, they think it is unfair that a specific type of product — beverages — is being singled out. Maybe San Francisco will respond to the ABC’s plea to level the playing fields by imposing similar restrictions on other sugary food and beverage advertisements.

Only time will tell whether this historic ordinance will turn out to be a dud or the most important event of the century for the field of health science.

[Photo by Sean Gallup/Getty Images]