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Baltimore sugary beverage bill draws opposition from restaurant industry

Sugar cubes represent the sugar content of a soda. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

Sugar cubes represent the sugar content of a soda. (The Daily Record / Maximilian Franz)

A new bill in the Baltimore City Council aims to mandate a restaurant industry trend of making milk, juice and water the default options on kids’ menus, but it faces objections from the industry.

The Baltimore City Health Kids’ Meals Bill would make water, milk and 100 percent fruit juice the default beverage for restaurant kids’ meals, as advocates look to reduce rates of diabetes and obesity in the city.

While restaurants like McDonald’s and Applebee’s have adopted similar policies, the industry opposes the law as a needless mandate.

“We oppose this legislation because it unnecessarily interferes with how our industry packages and sells meal options,” Melvin Thompson, the senior vice president of government affairs and public policy for the Restaurant Association of Maryland, said in a statement. “Restaurants today provide more information and healthier options than ever before. More choices and education are the best ways to promote healthy dining; not product restrictions and penalties.”

The association is still gathering information to determine whether the legislation, if it passed, would result in additional expenses for restaurants.

While the legislation would make non-sugary beverages the default menu option at restaurants, families could still choose to order a soda for their kids if they wanted.

“Baltimore City children drink on average one sugary beverage a day, which is one sugary beverage a day too many,” said Shawn McIntosh, executive director of Sugar Free Kids Maryland, a leading supporter of the legislation. “If we eliminate three sugary beverages a week, that’s a lot.”

Some fast food chains have already implemented similar policies at their locations. Four years ago, McDonald’s announced that it would no longer serve soda with Happy Meals, defaulting to water, milk and juice. Parents can still switch to a soda if they want.

Other chains to follow suit include Panera Bread and Wendy’s. Sitdown chains Applebee’s and IHOP have also removed soda from their kids’ menus.

McIntosh said the purpose of the legislation was to ensure that all restaurants offer healthier options; the legislation would be a push for other chains and independent restaurants to make changes.

“We’re not trying to do anything that’s onerous for the restaurants,” she said. “Even though the trend is moving towards healthy, it’s not happening at the same pace that chronic disease is happening.”

One out of every four kids in Baltimore drinks at least one soda every day, according to Sugar Free Kids Maryland. The American Heart Association recommends that children 2 years and older drink just one 8-ounce sugary drink a week.

“One in three high school children are obese or overweight,” said Leana Wen, the Baltimore City health commissioner, in a statement. “A major contributor to this epidemic is the increased consumption of sugary drinks. It is important that we help parents to make the healthy choice the easy choice for their children.”

Sugar consumption has been linked to the development of type 2 diabetes, tooth decay and hypertension, problems more prevalent in Baltimore. It is also connected to childhood obesity and studies have found that one in three Baltimore child is overweight.

Baltimore would not be the first city to make such a switch. In the last two years, Davis and Stockton, California, passed similar legislation. Other cities are also considering similar legislation.

City Council Member Brandon Scott introduced the measure, which was co-sponsored by five other council members.

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