U.S. appeals court blocks San Francisco ordinance on soda health warnings

SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A U.S. appeals court sided with the beverage industry on Tuesday, granting its request to block a San Francisco ordinance mandating health warnings for soda and other sugary drinks.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that San Francisco’s ordinance unfairly targeted one group of products. The plaintiffs, including the American Beverage Association and the California Retailers Association, were likely to succeed with their claim that the ordinance was unjustified and violated commercial speech under the First Amendment, the court ruled.

The San Francisco ordinance is part of a growing national movement seeking to curb consumption of soft drinks and other high-calorie beverages that medical experts say are largely to blame for an epidemic of childhood obesity. Many localities also have moved to tax sugary beverages.

John Cote, a spokesman for San Francisco’s city attorney office, said the city is disappointed and evaluating all options.

“San Francisco remains committed to being a leader when it comes to protecting the health of our residents, especially our children,” Cote said.

San Francisco passed an ordinance in June 2015 requiring advertisers within the city to include a warning statement that said drinking high-sugar beverages contributed to obesity, diabetes and tooth decay.

A growing body of research has identified sugary drinks as the biggest contributors to added, empty calories in the American diet, and as a major culprit in a range of costly health problems associated with being overweight.

A federal judge had rejected the industry’s request for a pretrial injunction but had put the ordinance on hold pending the result of the appeal. A three-judge 9th Circuit panel on Tuesday unanimously decided that the lower court was wrong to deny the injunction.

San Francisco’s warning requirement is misleading and deceptive by focusing on a single product, the 9th Circuit ruled.

“The warning is required exclusively on advertisements for sugar-sweetened beverages, and not on advertisements for other products with equal or greater amounts of added sugars and calories,” the court wrote.

The California State Outdoor Advertising Association is also among the plaintiffs.

Reporting by Dan Levine and Ben Klayman, editing by Marcy Nicholson and Cynthia Osterman