The Healthy Beverage Initiative: A Q&A with UCSF Director of Wellbeing Leeane Jensen, MA, MPH

SAN FRANCISCO, CA-- In 2015, UCSF became one of the first medical centers in the country to ban the sale of soda and sugary beverages on campus.  The sales ban has become known as the Healthy Beverage Initiative, which we affectionately call the HBI. This feat was accomplished in large part due to the amazing efforts of UCSF Director of Wellbeing, Leeane Jensen.

We were lucky enough to talk with Leeane about her role in the Healthy Beverage Initiative's success. Enjoy!

SSEW:  Let’s start at the beginning. Where did the idea for the Healthy Beverage Initiative come from?  Did you ever think that this huge coup could happen at UCSF?

Leeane Jensen:  The idea for the Healthy Beverage Initiative originally came from a UCSF medical student over 6 years ago. The student wrote in the idea to our then Chancellor, and as a result, Dr. Laura Schmidt was assigned to my Wellness committee to further discuss the idea.  It was seen as a little too forward for UCSF at the time, but when we revisited it in 2013, we received overwhelming support to make it happen. 

I never really lost sight of the HBI happening at UCSF—I knew it would happen one day.  I believe in UCSF and its ability to be a leader in all things health and time after time they always come through.


SSEW: Why did you and the rest of the Wellness Department take up the cause of the Healthy Beverage Initiative, as opposed to other potential public health initiatives? In other words, what about the Healthy Beverage Initiative captured your attention, or seemed particularly worthwhile to you?

Leeane Jensen: I get this question a lot.  People often ask me ‘why pick on sugar sweetened beverages when you could pick on a million other things?’  The answer for me is easy:

Scientific evidence shows that there is absolutely no nutritional benefit to consuming sugar sweetened beverages, and in fact, sugar sweetened beverages are the leading source of added sugar in the American diet and are one of the main causes of many severe medical conditions caused by sugar overconsumption.

Our hospitals have seen several cases of non-alcoholic fatty liver disease (NAFLD), especially in children, and we know that sugar sweetened beverage consumption is one of the main culprits to this disease. Knowing this, it was an easy choice to eliminate the sale and service of these items at UCSF.


SSEW: Were you and the Wellness Department met with any opposition when you proposed the idea of the HBI? How did you get everybody on board?

Leeane Jensen: We knew that people would automatically assume that by eliminating the sale of sugar sweetened beverages, this would also mean that people would be losing their freedom of choice to drink what they want.  But this was far from the truth…

Anticipating this assumption, from the very start we made it clear that anyone is welcome to bring or drink a sugar sweetened beverage at UCSF.  Our point was really clear: people have the right to bring or drink what they’d like, but UCSF also has the right to sell what we want.  So while we want to model healthy behaviors, we also don’t want to take away personal choice. 

We made sure to make that point from the very start, and because we were thoughtful and deliberate in doing so, we only saw a minuscule amount of opposition.


SSEW: Some reports say that diet sodas are worse for you than non-diet, due to chemicals such as aspartame. Why doesn’t the sales ban include diet soda?

Leeane Jensen: The scientific evidence on the health impacts of diet drinks and artificial sweeteners is not yet as strong as the evidence on regular sugar.  Because of this, we decided to keep diet drinks at this time. 

Additionally, we wanted to be sensitive to the fact that some of our employees may desire a caffeinated drink (because they work the night shift in the hospital and are required to stay awake and alert) and they may not drink coffee.  Keeping diet drinks is one way to help support those individuals and their work.


SSEW: Is the Healthy Beverage Initiative actually proving to be beneficial to those at UCSF? How do you measure its success or failure?

Leeane Jensen: Yes, we have some early evidence from a survey we conducted that shows that UCSF employees are largely in favor of our initiative. 

One additional way that we measure success is in our overall sales of beverages at UCSF. Because we have not yet completed a full year into our Healthy Beverage Initiative, it is too soon to tell for certain. But, it does appear that overall beverage revenues are staying pretty consistent.


SSEW: Could the Healthy Beverage Initiative happen anywhere? What tips do you have for other public health professionals who may want to implement a similar sales ban at their places of work?

Leeane Jensen: At UCSF, we are fortunate to live in a place that is very progressive and educated, and we work for an organization that is willing to think outside the box and support this important, forward-thinking effort. 

I truly believe that a Healthy Beverage Initiative could happen anywhere. However, resistance to the idea may be stronger within other types of organizations, outside of academia and healthcare.  This doesn’t mean it’s impossible though!

One tip I would give to any organization looking to implement something like this would be to enlist your subject matter experts, as well as support from your leadership, early on. The support of these two groups allows for much easier implementation in any organization.

In addition, it is also vitally important that you spend a good chunk of time educating your organizational community about the harmful effects of sugar sweetened beverages and that the change is not about personal choice. I would recommend educating far in advance of the actual implementation phase.  We spent a ton of time educating our community about sugar sweetened beverages, as well as the intents of our healthy beverage initiative, and it was extremely helpful.  By the time implementation arrived, there were no surprises, which I believe helped set up our initiative for long-term success.


SSEW: What comes next? Do you have any great public health initiatives coming up in the future?

Leeane Jensen: Our wellness program is always enlisting the expertise of our committee and community to discuss future directions and strategies.  We have some of the leading experts in public health research right here at UCSF, so utilizing their knowledge and work, just like we did in the Healthy Beverage Initiative, is something we hope to do more of in the future.


BY Alison Hartman, Assistant Executive Director, SSEW Center