As San Francisco implements increased controls on sugary beverages — including the first requirement for health warning labels on soda advertisements in any city — the largest regional medical institutions locally have kept pace.
Health officials at the institutions say the change has been welcomed, and some say they are even ahead of the curve.
Three of the four biggest hospitals in The City have banned or are actively phasing out soda and other drinks with added sugar from their premises, and the remaining facility is discussing a healthy beverage initiative.
Independent of whether their initiatives were shaped and timed according to some city officials’ hard push against the beverages, the hospitals say prohibiting sugary beverages is in line with their mission statements.
San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center announced its healthy beverage initiative on June 12, meaning it will no longer offer soda and other sugar sweetened beverages that contain more than 25 calories per 12 ounces through patients services, the cafeteria or vending machines, with the exception of milk, 100 percent fruit juice or other nutritional supplements.
The timing of the initiative was meant to coincide with legislation the Board of Supervisors approved last week mandating health warning labels on soda advertisements, prohibiting sugary beverage advertisements on public property and forbidding use of city funds to purchase sugary beverages.
In addition, the bulk of hospital patients are minorities — 31 percent Latino, 24 percent Asian and 16 percent black. Those three groups suffer disproportionately from chronic illnesses like diabetes and heart disease, according to Corilee Watters, assistant director of food and nutrition service at the hospital.
Sugary beverages can lead to such health complications and the initiative formalizes the hospital’s commitment to creating a healthy environment for patients and visitors, Watters said.
Watters said the selection for drinks in the hospital needs to match what is actually part of a healthy lifestyle. “Patients perceive what they are given at the hospital as a model or healthy diet, that ‘This must be healthy, this is what was ordered by my physician,’” she said, “And we need to have that corrected.”
Some representatives of the soft drink industry and others who’ve opposed tight restrictions on sugary beverages — including a soda tax in The City that failed to pass last year — have pointed out that many foods are unhealthy.
But Kirsten Bibbins-Domingo, director of UC San Francisco’s Center for Vulnerable Populations at the hospital, said that sugary beverages are the biggest source of added sugar in people’s diets, at about one-third of the total.
“If we were able to reduce consumption of sugary beverages even a little bit, there’s research that shows we would make a sizable dent in preventing diabetes and heart attacks,” said Bibbins-Domingo, who is also a general internist at the hospital.
The hospital last month started a soft implementation of the initiative by not replenishing soda and other sugary beverages as stock ran out. It has also offered a wide range of alternatives, like unsweetened teas, diet soft drinks, flavored carbonated water and more types of coffees and teas, so there has been “very little notice” of the initiative’s implementation, Watters said.
“There’s been really no complaints, which is great,” she said. “They’re embracing wellness.”
Meanwhile, Kaiser Permanente San Francisco implemented its healthy beverage initiative in May 2014, as part of its pledge with the Partnership for a Healthier America. Hospital spokesman Joe Fragola said the initiative was not influenced by city policies around sugary drinks and that “it’s more like we lead the way.”
“We’ve had a childhood obesity issue that has been well documented and have thought long about getting children away from sugary drinks,” Fragola said. “We wanted to walk the walk and talk the talk, so we decided on this as an add-on to our programs.”
Implementation “went very smoothly,” said Priya Prabakar, a registered dietitian and manager of Kaiser Permanente San Francisco’s nutritional services department.
UC San Francisco, the second largest employer in San Francisco after The City, in late May announced its healthy beverage initiative, which goes into effect July 1. All of its more than 100 buildings citywide are expected to be sugary beverage-free by Nov. 1, said Dan Henroid, director of the medical center’s nutrition and food services.
UCSF’s staff have long involved themselves in the issue — notably, Dr. Laura Schmidt on the policy front and Dr. Robert Lustig on the science side. Similar to The City, UCSF has forbidden the use of university funds to pay for sugary beverages. In November, after The City’s soda tax failed to pass, UCSF launched the website www.sugarscience.org to inform the public about health risks tied to sugary beverages.
In addition, the California Pacific Medical Center has expanded the selection of healthy beverages for staff, patients and visitors, said spokesman Dan Fryer, and a healthy beverage policy is currently being discussed.