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Sugary drink ban could sour sales

Soda sales may be going flat in Howard County public facilities, thanks to a new policy restricting the sale or distribution of the bubbly beverage on county property and at county-sponsored events.

Vending business owners had mixed reactions Wednesday to County Executive Ken Ulman’s executive order announced Tuesday — the first such mandate in the state — that permits the sale of only sweetened beverages with less than five calories per serving.

William Carpenter

William Carpenter, owner of Annapolis-based VendNatural, plans to bid on the contract to put vending machines in Howard County libraries. (Maximilian Franz/The Daily Record)

That was welcome news for William Carpenter, who owns Annapolis-based VendNatural and plans to bid on the contract to put vending machines in Howard County libraries.

“People tend to buy healthier products when they have a choice,” Carpenter said, adding that he’s excited to expand his company’s presence in Howard County. “We do about two and a half times what a traditional vending machine does in sales annually.”

But for those business owners who have grown accustomed to operating vending machines stocked with the now-shunned drinks, the county’s decision is akin to the crash post-sugar high, said Miles Isaacson, who owns M.I. Vending Inc., a Cockeysville-based vending machine company.

M.I Vending has machines throughout Howard County, but not in government-owned facilities, so Isaacson won’t be directly affected by the new policy. But other vending companies serving the county likely “will do much less” business, he said.

Jerry Caplan — who owns  Baltimore-based Jel-Cap Vending, summed up his opinion of Ullman’s directive in two words:  “It stinks,” he said, before hanging up the phone to attend to business.

Officials hope the policy, which permits selling a very limited number of sweetened drinks, will help instill better eating habits in children and change the culture of consumption that leads to diet-related health problems, Ulman said, such as the “obesity epidemic.”

Under Ulman’s directive, fruit and vegetable beverages must contain 100 percent juice and have less than 120 calories in eight servings or less. There are also calorie and fat limits on milk and soy offerings, which must be unflavored. Drinks with artificial sweeteners — as in many “diet” versions — cannot exceed one quarter of the total drink offerings.

Ulman said he thinks the policy strikes a proper balance between an all-out ban on drink machines — an option he said many people favored — and completely ignoring the health risks of sugary beverages.

“From a beverage industry standpoint, all we’re saying is to provide your healthiest option,” he said.

That stipulation, however, puts a strain on traditional drink manufacturers and the companies that supply those products, Isaacson said.

The problem isn’t finding healthful products, he explained.

Vending machine owners can fill the racks with “anything [they] want, other than beer,” he said with a laugh, adding that he has no relationships with the major soft drink manufacturers. He buys his inventory from wholesale clubs, he said.

But the policy still spells trouble for the vending industry, he said, because from his experience, soda reigns supreme with consumers. That means machines stocked with juice and milk could sell fewer items and make less money, he said.

And because of the agreement between the vendor and the host location — hosts earn a certain percentage of the sales generated by the machine inside their establishment — that decline in revenue gets passed along.

“If you put in a bunch of stuff that people really don’t want, they won’t buy it,” Isaacson said. “A certain percentage of people will always bring their own sodas in. So you’re fighting the higher price and you’re fighting keeping the product they want to buy. Some people are going to buy the healthy stuff, yes, but 100 percent of the people? No — not going to happen.”

That’s why it’s necessary to change the culture of consumption, Ulman said, adding that he asked the health department to make recommendations for improving food policy, as well. He said he anticipates enacting a similar policy concerning snack machines.

Carpenter said he thinks the industry is well on its way to achieving that cultural shift. VendNatural machines can be found in 28 states, he said, and there’s a high concentration at universities, military bases and hospitals in the Maryland region.

“There’s such a focus on healthier options, across the board but in the vending marketplace in particular,” Carpenter said. “There’s just a tremendous push on giving alternatives to students and faculty and people in general.”

Although Carpenter’s company stands to benefit from the additional business opportunities, he said he’s still not totally supportive of Ulman’s mandate. The recent surge in popularity for healthy vending options won’t diminish the demand for the sweet stuff, Carpenter said.

And there are enough hungry people to justify offering both types of snacks, he said, because they cater to distinct target markets.

Isaacson called Ulman’s move overly intrusive.

“I don’t like the idea of trying to tell people what to do, what to eat, what to drink,” said “It’s a slippery slope that we’re going farther and farther down all the time. Just mind your own business.”

But Ulman said he’s not trying to play Big Brother; he simply wants thirsty Howard County residents to have choices — healthy choices, that is. He said he doesn’t support making it easy to choose sugary drinks.

“I know some people are making this into a big deal,” he said. “I just see it as us leading by example. There’s no requirement for us to sell anything in county buildings. We have a history of having vending machines or having snack bars, and all we’re saying is that at those places, we will provide healthier choices.”

“We don’t sell cigarettes in county buildings, either,” he added.