Two years after San Francisco passed a law requiring soda companies to place warnings on their advertisements and billboards, a federal appeals court has blocked the requirement with an injunction saying that the order infringes upon the soda companies' First Amendment rights.
As we shared in 2015, the SF law basically required soda companies to place a health warning on all of their billboards and advertisements, the size of which must be no less than 20% of the total ad space. The warning would have to read: "WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay." Exceptions were in place, however, for vintage signs, including the Coca-Cola light-up billboard in SoMa.
The ABA's appeal argued that such a requirement would "overwhelm any messages the companies wanted to present," says the SF Examiner. Regarding the ruling, Circuit Judge Sandra Ikuta wrote:
By focusing on a single product, the warning conveys the message that sugar-sweetened beverages are less healthy than other sources of added sugars and calories. This message is deceptive in light of the current state of research on this issue.
William Dermody, a spokesperson for the ABA, commented on the ruling, saying, "Today’s decision affirms our position that the San Francisco warning mandate not only violates the constitutional right to free speech but it is also deceptive and misleading to consumers."
Senator Scott Weiner has chimed in with his response to the ruling, writing in a statement:
I authored the soda health warning law to protect the health of everyone in our community, particularly the kids who are targeted by these multi-national corporations. Apparently, corporate free speech matters more than the health of our children. Soda and other sugary beverages are a unique contributor to the type 2 diabetes epidemic exploding in our cities, particularly in our low-income neighborhoods and communities of color. If these corporations are going to spend billions targeting our communities with misleading advertisements that make it seem like drinking sodas is all happiness and rainbows, we should require them to add a little honesty in the form of a simple warning label.
According to a 2012 study by the California Diabetes Program, 8.3% of people in the state are affected by diabetes. The California Diabetes Coalition also reported in a 2012 study that 7% of adults over 20 in San Francisco county are also affected by diabetes. Between 2014 and 2015, the amount of adults in San Francisco who qualify as obese has also increased, going from 46.6% to 50%, according to the San Francisco Health Improvement Partnership.
Relatedly, a June 2012 study from the Harvard School of Public Health found that sugary drinks "increase the risk of obesity, diabetes, heart disease, and gout." How much of an impact that's had on the population of San Francisco hasn't exactly been quantified, though the soda tax that made headlines the past few years has proven to be effective in reducing soda consumption. In January, the Chron reported on a UC Berkeley study, which said that the tax resulted in a "21% reduction in consumption of sodas by low-income residents."
While the tax's effects have had a measurable effect on soda consumption, the impact of warnings on sugary drinks has mostly been measured on a preliminary basis. In a 2016 UCSF study that compared sugary beverage warning labels with tobacco warning labels, researchers found that parents who saw these labels "believed that SSBs [sugar-sweetened beverages] were less healthy for their child and were significantly less likely to select an SSB for their child from an online vending machine."
Going forward, the city has the option of contesting this ruling, bringing it up to a panel of 11 judges within the appeals court, or taking the fight to the U.S. Senate.