Soda Industry Fails to Stop San Francisco Law Targeting Sugar

Court denies request to stop city from requiring health warnings on advertisements

San Francisco is set to become the first U.S. city to require health warnings on advertisements for soda and other sugar-added drinks after the beverage industry failed Tuesday to get a court order to stop it.
The law goes into effect July 25 and will require that billboards and other public advertisements include the language, "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."
The American Beverage Association had filed a civil complaint in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California in July, arguing the requirement violates free speech rights under the First Amendment. The California Retailers Association and California State Outdoor Advertising Association joined the complaint.

In a ruling on May 17, U.S. District Judge Edward Chen denied a request for a preliminary injunction. He added that plaintiffs are unlikely to succeed on the merits of their First Amendment claim or to suffer irreparable harm if the ordinance goes into effect.


The San Francisco ruling comes as more politicians and regulators seek to curb consumption of sugary drinks to help curb rising obesity and diabetes rates. Such measures have the support of a growing number of public health officials and are being challenged by the beverage industry, which is worried that it is being singled out like the tobacco industry.
Philadelphia is weighing a tax of 3 cents per ounce on drinks with added sugars. The Food and Drug Administration has proposed listing the amount of added sugar on nutrition labels and recommended consumption levels. Lawmakers in states including California and New York also have proposed warning labels on beverage containers but have failed to gain traction.

The San Francisco ordinance would require the health warnings to cover 20% of public advertisements in the city, including posters and bus shelters. The warnings wouldn't be required on television or radio ads or on beverage packaging or menus.

City officials voted unanimously in favor of the measure last June and banned city departments from purchasing sugary drinks with city funds. The city dropped another ordinance prohibiting ads for sugary drinks on city-owned property after the beverage industry challenged it.
In Tuesday's ruling, Judge Chen wrote San Francisco "has a legitimate interest in public health and safety'' and that the city "had a reasonable basis'' for identifying sugar-sweetened beverages as a cause of obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.

The American Beverage Association, the members of which include Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo Inc. and Dr Pepper Snapple Group Inc., said Tuesday that it was reviewing the court ruling but planned to continue challenging the ordinance in court.

"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,'' the industry group added in a statement.

San Francisco's city attorney, Dennis Herrera, said the city will begin enforcing the ordinance in July.


The city council passed the ordinance after residents in November 2014 voted 54.5% in favor of slapping a 2-cents-per-ounce tax on drinks with caloric sweeteners, falling short of the required two-thirds support. Supporters of the tax are pushing for it to be voted on again this November.