Public health win: San Francisco law requires health warnings on sugary drink advertising

“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.”

If you live in San Francisco, you will soon be seeing this message on billboards and bus shelters, as the city is set to become the first in the U.S. to require this health warning on outdoor advertisements for soda and other sugary drinks.

The 2015 law will take effect on July 25th as scheduled, after a federal judge refused to grant a preliminary injunction based on the American Beverage Association’s civil complaint that the health message is misleading and violates free speech: “The warning required by the city ordinance is factual and accurate, and the city had a reasonable basis for requiring the warning given its interest in public health and safety,” wrote U.S. District Judge Edward Chen, in his decision.

The warning is indeed factual and accurate, as sugary drinks are a well-documented contributor to the obesity epidemic, and multiple studies link these beverages to increased risk of type 2 diabetes, as well as heart disease and other chronic conditions.

As a result, research has pointed to the need for a concerted effort in reducing sugary drink consumption, including public health recommendations for warnings, labels, restrictions, and taxes in the governmental policy arena.

For now, the San Francisco ordinance only applies to outdoor advertising and not to ads in newspapers, magazines, television, or menus and beverage labels. And although the beverage industry will likely appeal the decision, this ruling is certainly a win for public health as it opens the door to implementation of similar evidence-based warnings in other municipalities and settings.