Food Labeling

Judge Won't Halt San Francisco's Forced Nanny State Soda Warnings

Did you know sugar helps make you fat? Of course you did.


Coca-Cola Billboard
Credit: nffcnnr / photo on flickr

Everybody knows that eating too much sugar (and flopping around on the couch all the time instead of exercising) makes you fat, right? This is not a secret. And soda and drink manufacturers have responded to our increased understanding of the relationship between carbs and obesity by offering sugar-free versions of many of their drinks.

Not enough for San Francisco. But nothing is enough for the nannies of San Francisco. They passed a law last summer that requires all public sign-based advertising for sodas and sugary drinks to contain the following text taking up 20 percent of the space of the advertisement: "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."

The beverage industry, along with trade associations representing retailers and outdoor advertising sign owners, challenged San Francisco in court. Not only is it compelled speech, they argued, it also obviously singles out only one possible contributor to obesity. Other unhealthy foods that have high amounts of calories (or even sugar) are not targeted for warnings.

But a federal judge has rejected a request at an injunction for the new law, determining that the mandated warning falls under a "legitimate action to protect public safety." Opponents will likely continue to fight it.

Consider for a moment what both the opponents and the judge, Edward Chen of the Northern District of California, are suggesting when their arguments are put together in tandem. Chen says it's true that sugary drinks can contribute to obesity, therefore San Francisco has a public health interest in requiring citizens to be warned. The soda representatives point out that there are a whole lot of other consumer products that have the same impact. We can see where this is going: This logic suggests that any food with lots of carbs or calories should have some sort of warning to consumers.

Down this path lies the madness of California's Proposition 65. Prop. 65, a statewide law, requires informing consumers (through signs) of the presence of possible toxins or carcinogens based on a list of government-controlled ingredients. The result has not helped protect consumers from exposure to cancer. Rather, the result is that there are Prop. 65 warning signs in every single business in the state of California, and for any that don't have them, there are lawyers looking to pounce. Prop. 65 instead tells Californians that toxins and carcinogens are everywhere, and death hovers over their shoulders as though they're all tertiary characters on Game of Thrones. It accomplishes utterly nothing to improve public health or safety. It's a lawsuit generator.

It's easy to predict something similar coming out of San Francisco: This obsessive need to meddle with the lives of others will lead to so many warnings on everything that people will have to simply ignore them entirely or else huddle in the corners of their homes out of fear. You better believe some lawyer interests are watching what's going on with this law and considering a ballot initiative to create a new Prop. 65 for sugar or fat content.