Patients are regularly urged by their doctors to quit drinking soda, only to leave the doctor’s office and come face to face with a Big Gulp. Not so at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center.
In 2015, the university removed all sugar-sweetened beverages from every store, cafeteria, food truck and restaurant on its sprawling campuses. And the city of San Francisco is poised to become the first in the U.S. to rid all its hospitals of the drinks that researchers believe feed national epidemics of obesity and type 2 diabetes.
Both efforts are part of a unique collaboration between public health officials and advocates, academic researchers and community coalitions.
Dubbed the San Francisco Health Improvement Partnership, the collaboration has improved public health in the city of 850,000 in three ways: it reduced consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages; it restricted retail alcohol sales; and it provided dental care to previously undeserved children.
In addition to getting hospitals and hospital food vendors to stop serving soft drinks, the partnership helped enact a voter-approved tax on sugar-sweetened beverages in San Francisco last year.
Listening to residents of low-income communities proved vital for selling them on the benefits of taxing sugary beverages. He experienced an “aha” moment when a member of a community group suggested that free water-filling stations she’d seen near yoga studios should be brought into her neighborhood, where lower-income residents tended to quench their thirst with soda.
It’s about making the healthy choice the easy choice, the lead researcher said.
Experts say this kind of change is needed at the national, state and local level to remove some of the major health disparities.
After research from UCSF repeatedly exposed public health harms associated with soda, the scientists felt compelled to act and get out of the business of selling sugary beverages or profiting from them.
Research shows soft drink ban paying off
In a separate, as-yet unpublished study, researchers followed 2,500 of the medical center’s 24,000 employees. The lowest-paid workers - janitors, cafeteria workers and shuttle drivers - drank on average 30 ounces a day of sugary beverages before the ban, while professors drank on average about 4 ounces a day.
Six months after the ban took effect, she said, the lowest-wage workers were drinking 25 percent less soda.
All University of California campuses now are considering banning soft drinks, and the San Francisco campus is considering health interventions seen at other campuses, like signs at elevators on the Los Angeles campus pointing to stairwells.
“We learned something from the tobacco debates. Physicians used to smoke at the bedside in hospitals. The candy striper would sell you cigarettes,” the co-author of the study said. “Someday our children will look back and say, ‘You were giving people soda in bed when they were sick in the hospital?’”
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