San Francisco Adopts Restrictive Sweetened Beverage Policy

Published May 31, 2016

Anyone visiting a vending machine on San Francisco city property this summer with a mind to buy a can of soda will be surprised at their choices. Mayor Gavin Newsom issued a little-noticed Executive Directive in April banning “calorically sweetened” soft drinks from vending machines on city property, which is now taking effect as standing contracts expire.

The directive states that “by minimizing access to unhealthy food and drink in the work place, the City and County of San Francisco can support and encourage healthy choices.”

Both opponents and administration officials view consumer choice as central to the issue, according to Newsom policy advisor Jason Elliott.

“In city machines we are instructing vendors to offer different choices than what has been offered,” Elliott said. “If you choose to buy a twelve pack of 7Up and keep it in your office fridge, that’s fine.”

Bob Achermann, executive director of the California/Nevada Soft Drink Association, sees the Newsom move as exactly the opposite.

“It’s about choice,” said Achermann. “You offer that in a vending machine. You don’t artificially determine what people in a marketplace want and don’t want.”

Most Current Offerings Banned

The directive is part of a multifaceted approach by the city attacking local waistlines. Diet drinks may account for one quarter of the offerings in a beverage vending machine, but only unsweetened 100 percent fruit or vegetable juice and “choices of water, low-fat and/or 1% milk, including soy milk, rice milk and other similar dairy or non dairy milk” may make up the difference.

According to the directive, 50 percent of food offerings must “contain no trans fats,” “have no more than 35% of calories from total fat,” “no more than 10% of saturated fat” and “no more than 35% sugar by weight.”

A previous directive banned the purchase of bottled water with city funds, Elliott notes.

“We’re not telling people to open the machines today and stock only water—well, actually not even water, because it would be bottled,” said Elliott. “This says that if you have a contract with a vendor that runs through 2013, fine—in 2013 you must enter a Request for Proposal under this process.”

During this process, the city takes proposals from different vendors. Managers at the City Hall cafeteria were not available to comment, but it is clear vending machine business will be affected. At the two machines in the cafeteria, only one-third of the current options would make the cut.

“One of the criteria should be their ability to stock healthy food options,” said Elliott. “They’ve contacted their vendors, and there was no barking from them, so it looks like it’s going to go smoothly. I was responsible for this at the staff level and I haven’t heard any complaints from department heads.”

Substitutes Have Equal Calories

Elliott claims the intent is to cut obesity.

“It’s only fair to point to research revealing a correlative risk between drinking calorically sweetened beverages and obesity,” said Elliott. “The public health system in California is a county mandate, not a state one, so if you experience symptoms of obesity, that becomes a cost to the city’s public health infrastructure.”

Achermann disputes the potential for the directive to have an effect on obesity.

“Demonizing one product to reduce obesity is not appropriate,” Achermann said. “Beverages account for about 5 percent of our daily caloric intake, and having pure fruit juice in front of you is not going to help the calorie situation. People might say that it’s healthier than a regular soft drink, but the caloric content is the same.”

Alternative: Informing Consumers

The industry is willing to work within certain guidelines, Achermann says, noting distributors have voluntarily eliminated full-calorie soft drinks from schools nationwide. At the heart of the beverage industry’s solution is to give consumers better information.

“There’s a state law on the books for vending machines that simply says, ‘offer variety,’ and we support that,” said Achermann. “Our Clear on Calories initiative gives you caloric information contained on the button that you make a selection with, and front-of–label information at the fountain where you fill your cup.

“Consumers should make educated decisions, live a healthy lifestyle, moderate their caloric intake, and exercise,” he added. “We think that’s a solution—there’s nothing wrong with consuming a regular soft drink in that equation.”

Anti-Soda, Pro-Pot

The media has seized on a contrast between new restrictions on soft drinks and San Francisco’s new, lenient policy on edible cannabis products, instituted around the same time. An editorial in the Washington Times asked, “Does Mr. Newsom believe that Sprite and Dr Pepper are more hazardous to your health than a marijuana milkshake?”

Elliott remains unabashed.

“People love to put a magnifying glass on us. When we put a victory garden in front of city hall we were roundly ridiculed, and now there’s one at the White House,” said Elliott. “We don’t mind when people poke fun at us. We think our policy is justified and will do some good.”

As for the soda policy, Achermann says he remains hopeful San Francisco’s policy will be an outlier.

“You have to wonder about priorities,” said Achermann. “But I think San Francisco is known for being out in front of the rest of California.”

Rob Goszkowski ([email protected]) writes from San Francisco, California.