Why San Francisco Cannot Put Health Warnings on Soda Bottles

February 1, 2019, 1:21 PM UTC

San Francisco’s soda labeling rules violate the First Amendment, the Ninth Court of Appeals ruled Thursday. The judgment is a setback for warriors on sugar, who have taken their campaign for reduced sugar consumption right up to the World Health Organization (WHO).

The warning label, established by an ordinance in 2015, provoked a strong response from the sugary drinks industry, and while the industry did not win an immediate injunction, a judge did later freeze the ordinance while it was under judicial review.

Almost three years later, the appeals court has decided that the warning violates the rights of drinks manufacturers. The warning would have read, “WARNING: Drinking beverages with added sugar(s) contributes to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay” and would have made San Francisco the only major city to use a cigarette-style warning on soda bottles.

Like Philadelphia and a few other American cities San Francisco has also tried to tax sugar drinks, but a massive campaign by the drinks industry won a ban on soda taxes in California.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) also underwent a controversial discussion revising its sugar labels and in 2016 began requiring a separate line for added sugars that do not occur naturally in the other ingredients of a food. However, it was the FDA’s own language that helped judges shoot down San Francisco’s ordinance. Judges said the warning did not account for the fact that the FDA says “generally recognized as safe” when not consumed in excess.

As for what excess consumption is, the WHO puts the limit at 10% of a person’s energy a day, or around 50g, but recommends 5% for better health.

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