SAN FRANCISCO — With obesity rising, more hospitals across the country are dropping sugary drinks from cafeterias and vending machines — and angering employees and visitors in the process.
“It’s ridiculous,” said Terry Vincent, a surgical technologist eating lunch one recent afternoon in a hospital cafeteria at the University of California, San Francisco, which stopped selling sugar-sweetened drinks on its campuses one year ago. Many visitors spend long, stressful hours at the hospital sitting vigil with loved ones, he pointed out, adding: “Give ‘em a Coke!”
Officials at UCSF say the policy is popular among staff, and is helping to trim their waistlines, but many workers on their lunch break begged to differ.
“Why did we throw the tea into the harbor for freedom?” said one anesthesia technician, who declined to give his full name. Hospitals should “allow people to make their own decision” about what to drink, he said.
More and more hospitals are hearing similar grumbles — as well as some applause. In recent years, hospitals in Ohio, Indiana, Wisconsin, Texas, New Hampshire, and Minnesota have eradicated sugary drinks, stocking shelves instead with flavored water, skim milk, diet soda, and unsweetened tea.
In Ohio, Dayton Children’s Hospital eliminated nearly all sugar-sweetened beverages in 2014, mostly to combat childhood obesity, said Rachel Riddiford, who holds the title of organizational nutrition and healthy way officer.
Forty percent of children in the region are overweight or obese, she said. “We don’t want to promote something that’s directly related to unhealthy weight.”
Baylor Scott & White Health, a system of 48 hospitals in Texas, has stopped selling any food or beverage with over 25 grams of sugar per serving — including regular sodas, Snickers bars, and M&Ms.
“We’re telling [patients] to watch their diet and watch their sugar intake,” said Becky Hall, vice president of health and wellness. “We were looking at practicing what we preach.”
At UCSF, Laura Schmidt, who studies public policy related to the sale of sugar, said she came up with the idea to get rid of sugary drinks after walking through a hospital food court about five years ago. She saw patient families sipping on super-sized sodas. She knew such sugary drinks have no nutritional value and put people at risk of diabetes, obesity, heart disease, and tooth decay.
“I feel like a hypocrite,” she recalled thinking.
After much discussion, UCSF asked every campus vendor — including the national chain restaurants Subway and Jamba Juice — to stop selling drinks with any “liquid caloric sweeteners,” which includes sugar, high-fructose corn syrup, and even honey.
By November of 2015, the university had eliminated these drinks from its entire campus, including three hospital cafeterias and 100 vending machines, which serve 30,000 staff and students, in addition to patients and other visitors.
It’s not a total ban: Hospital staffers can bring regular sodas to work, and they can add sugar to their coffee. And some patients, particularly those with cancer, are still allowed to order ginger ale from their hospital beds, according to spokeswoman Kristen Bole.
Schmidt said before the new initiative, some hospital service workers reported drinking nearly a liter of sugary drinks every day. If their choice of drink was Coca-Cola, a liter would have 420 calories and 23 teaspoons of sugar — more than twice as much as the Food and Drug Administration recommends consuming in an entire day.
For the past year, Schmidt and colleagues have been tracking 2,500 employees to see how the new policy is affecting their lives. She said workers’ waist circumference and body mass index are already dropping, though it’s not clear if other factors were involved. She declined to share specific data because she’s hoping to publish the results. At the latest count, 80 percent of employees said they support the healthy drinks initiative, Schmidt said.
Schmidt said smaller interventions — such as urging employees to take jumping jacks breaks — are not going to create big changes in health.
The most powerful way to improve public health, she said, is to change the environment.
“Food corporations have gotten very good in creating an environment in which it’s very hard to eat a healthy diet,” she said.
But UCSF — and many other hospitals — have left diet sodas on the shelves. That rankled Bill Dane, who was visiting his wife at the UCSF Medical Center. He called it “bizarre” to get rid of sugary sodas and still sell “the fake stuff,” which some research has shown to be harmful.
But Leeane Jensen, UCSF’s director of well-being, said data are not conclusive about artificial sweeteners’ potential harm. “Until that data catches up, we’re not going to remove it,” she said.
“We’re also going to be realistic,” Jensen added. “Some people on our campus need caffeine. And they might not be coffee drinkers.”
Since UCSF got rid of sugary drinks, Schmidt has been fielding calls from hospitals across the country
— seeking to make a similar move. Meanwhile, the World Health Organization is recommending countries tax sugary drinks to curb chronic disease. Now, San Francisco is considering a tax on sodas, and nearly every hospital there has stopped selling sugary drinks.
The American Beverage Association, which is suing to stop that city’s proposed soda tax, said it isn’t getting in hospitals’ way.
“Hospitals are free to choose the beverage selections they wish to offer their customers,” said spokeswoman Lauren Kane. America’s big beverage companies offer plenty of other products, including no- and low- calorie drinks, “to suit all tastes and lifestyles,” she said.
In other parts of the country, hospitals have kept the soda flowing.
Boston Children’s Hospital, for instance, still allows visitors to fill a 20-ounce cup with soda.
Instead of all-out eradication, Children’s and other Boston hospitals opted for a color-coded stoplight system that lets customers make the final choice. Waters are marked with a green light, diet sodas are marked yellow, and sugary sodas are marked with a red “stop” sign.