TAMPA — Aimed at motorists whizzing by on busy Adamo Drive, the billboard protesting a fast food restaurant inside a well-known hospital is not subtle.
“I’m Not Lovin’ the Ventilator,” the ad says next to a picture of a patient in an oxygen mask — a mocking of McDonald’s well-known “I’m lovin’ it” slogan, pointed at Tampa General Hospital.
Erected this week, the the 10-by-36-foot illuminated sign says high-fat fast food can contribute to obesity and put COVID-19 patients at risk for intubation. The billboard, just east of 22nd Street across from IKEA, encourages people to urge Tampa General on Twitter to sever its ties with burgers and fries and go fast food free.
“Those infected with COVID-19 who are also living with chronic diseases such as heart disease and diabetes are at greatest risk for severe illness,” said Susan Levin, dietician with the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, the Washington D.C.-based nonprofit behind the billboard. Research shows such a restaurant can give the impression fast food is approved by the hospital, she said.
“It’s fine to have fast food in the world — that’s anyone’s choice to consume those products,” Levin said. “But in a hospital I think that’s especially egregious and dangerous.”
In an emailed response to the Tampa Bay Times, Tampa General Hospital officials countered that their dietary team offers a variety of healthy, nutritious menu items “to provide everyone with a range of choices including vegan, vegetarian and lighter options.” The hospital also has contracts with food service providers including McDonald’s “to offer convenient meal options.”
“Tampa General provides a wide variety of food options, and we believe our team members, physicians and visitors can make their own choice in what they choose to eat while on campus,” the statement said.
The restaurant at the hospital is one of 51 Tampa Bay-area McDonald’s owned by the Tampa-based Caspers Company, a family business run by Blake Casper, who serves on Tampa General’s volunteer board of directors.
Bob Conigliaro, company vice president for community relations, said in an emailed statement that McDonald’s is “one of the most frequented restaurants in the world,” feeding millions daily.
“We believe selecting meals for individuals and their families is a personal choice,” Conigliaro said. “We are proud to serve team members, physicians and visitors at Tampa General Hospital and look forward to continuing to serve this community for years to come.”
The protest, while provocative, is not the first. Anti-fast food campaigns have popped up periodically since McDonald’s first opened on the hospital’s first floor more than 30 years ago. Protestors have ranged from organizations to fifth graders holding hand-drawn posters.
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The physicians group also filed a complaint this week with the Florida Department of Health in Hillsborough County saying the hospital should “banish artery-clogging fast food including fried chicken and provide healthful, plant-based meals,” a news release said. A spokesman for the health department said the complaint was received Tuesday and was being reviewed.
In December, the group attempted to put up similar ads at several bus shelters near the hospital. Those ads were ultimately rejected by HART, the county’s transit agency. A spokesman said their legal department determined the ads did not meet their requirements.
The nonprofit’s website lists hospitals across the country that have McDonald’s, Chik-fil-A and Wendy’s restaurants. It also notes more than a dozen hospitals that have closed fast food restaurants over the last decade.
Levin said she remembers cigarette vending machines in hospitals, which she said would be “ridiculous now.”
“No one’s trying to dictate what people choose,” she said. “But there’s a place for those choices, and hospitals are not one of them.”