If you wanted to buy a soda at work but couldn't, would you drink more or less of the sugary liquid when away from the office?
Preliminary results from what researchers are calling a first-of-its-kind study suggest limiting access to sugar-sweetened beverages at the workplace can help heavy soda drinkers reduce their overall daily intake.
Six months after UC San Francisco stopped selling sugar-sweetened beverages at its on-site cafeterias, stores and vending machines -- effectively creating a sprawling soda desert -- hundreds of workers opted to consume fewer sugary drinks while off the job, too, according to a survey of 2,500 employees across the university.
"To our surprise there were equal reductions in both environments. The sales ban was only during the workday but they were still drinking less after they got home," said Elissa Epel, associate director at UCSF's Nutrition and Obesity Research Center, and one of the researchers in the study.
The most significant drop in the sugar-sweetened beverage consumption -- about 25 percent -- was among service employees who used to drink an average of three 12-ounce cans before the ban, said Laura Schmidt, a professor of health policy in the School of Medicine at UCSF who is leading the survey of employees and spearheaded the sales ban.
Schmidt attributed the significant reduction in part to UCSF's intense public education campaign about why it was phasing out sugary drinks. She says billboards, pamphlets and other communications raised awareness about the consumption of liquid sugar and increased risk for obesity and Type 2 diabetes.
"People who are lowering consumption are making an effort to do that, using the sales ban as an opportunity to say, 'OK I’m drinking too much,' " said Schmidt.
The American Beverage Association, a trade group that represents corporations such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, counters that Americans' soda consumption has actually dropped in recent years, but obesity rates continue to rise.
"Soda is not driving obesity rates," said Lauren Kane, a spokeswoman for the American Beverage Association.
UCSF's sales ban, affecting about 24,000 employees and thousands of visitors, comes as cities around the Bay Area and elsewhere in the nation debate policies aimed at reducing soda consumption.
Voters in San Francisco, Oakland and Albany are about to decide the fate of soda taxes in their cities this election. The costly battle, which has raised over $50 million in campaign contributions, is pitting public health advocates against the soda industry once again.
All three ballot measures would tax distributors one penny per ounce of ice teas, sport drinks, sodas and other beverages with added sugar that they bring into city limits.
Some UCSF employees, like Anna Rubin, support the soda tax but have mixed feelings about the sales ban on campus. Rubin, a researcher in developmental biology, says sometimes, she just wants to enjoy a soda at work.
"When I do want one, it’s kind of annoying not to be able to get it. I do feel that I should be able to find one within a five-minute walk of my lab," said Rubin, while awaiting her lunch at a Mexican restaurant at the Mission Bay campus.
UCSF's study is ongoing, with Epel's team collecting blood samples from 214 employees initially identified as heavy drinkers of sugar-sweetened beverages, to analyze impacts on health.