San Francisco Is Putting Warning Labels on Soda Ads, Opposition Be Damned

The labels—opposed by industry groups—will appear on ads on billboards, bus stops, stadiums, and posters and will warn consumers about how eating sugar contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay.
Hilary Pollack
Los Angeles, US
May 18, 2016, 7:00pm
Photo via Flickr user Jeff Youngstrom

Way back in 1966, the United States government issued its first law requiring packs of cigarettes to feature warning labels from the surgeon general about the dangers of smoking. Since then, there has been a decades-long tug-of-war between health experts, the Feds, and tobacco companies about how strongly worded, graphic, and bold these labels should be.

Determining how food should be labeled has proven even trickier in recent years. While some issues are still open for public debate (Are GMOs totally safe? Is butter actually our friend?), one thing has seemed certain for a while: For many scientifically supported reasons, sugar is almost universally demonized by health and nutrition experts. And there's almost no better way to ingest loads of it in a short, mindless period of time than by drinking a giant soda.

READ MORE: Soda Is Following in Tobacco's Shady Footsteps

So as with cigarettes, it's no surprise to most that soda is bad for you. In fact, 61 percent of Americans now actively avoid drinking soda altogether—a huge shift in tide from our parents' pop-loving generation. But by recent estimates, the average American is still drinking nearly 45 gallons of soda every year (down from 58 gallons per year in 1998), and with big money involved, it has proven difficult to launch initiatives raising further awareness about the dangers of sugary drinks, even with countless studies pointing towards their health detriments.

San Francisco, however, may prove that it's possible.


In addition to being the first major US city to ban plastic bags at checkout stands and to phase out the sale of plastic water bottles under 21 ounces, San Francisco is now poised to become the first US city requiring health warnings on ads for sodas and other sugar-loaded beverages.

On Tuesday, US District Court Judge Edward M. Chen successfully shot down an attempt by soda industry kingpins to stop pending legislation requiring the warnings, according to CBS Local. Last July, three corporate superpowers that love those soda dollars—the American Beverage Association, the California State Outdoor Advertising Association, and the California Retailers Association—filed a lawsuit claiming that labels of this type would infringe on their First Amendment rights.

The lawsuit argued that by greenlighting the warning labels, "the city [would be] trying to ensure that there is no free marketplace of ideas, but instead only a government-imposed, one-sided public 'dialogue' on the topic."

READ MORE: This Lawsuit Claims Soda Warning Labels Are a Threat to Freedom

But the court says your Constitutional rights don't really protect the sale of highly caloric beverages without even the meagerest of attempts at consumer education. Chen also denied the groups' request for an injunction to delay implementation of the measure to accommodate further legal proceedings.

The warnings—reading, "WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay"—will appear on soda and sugary drink ads that are posted on billboards, buses, transit shelters, posters, and stadiums within city limits.

The path is now cleared for the labels to go into effect, which could happen as soon as July.

Let's all come out and say it three times: Sugar is poison, sugar is poison, sugar is poison. Now we can go enjoy our Mexican Cokes and ginger ales in self-destructive peace.