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Baltimore law barring soda from kids’ meals takes effect

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 Baltimore law took effect Wednesday requiring restaurants to include non-sugary drinks as the default option in kids’ meals.

Baltimore is now the largest American city and the first on the East Coast to implement such a measure, which is aimed at improving city children’s health.

Advocates of the law believe it will help improve health outcomes in a city where a third of school-aged children are obese and a quarter drink at least one soda a day. Families in the Baltimore area eat out an average of 2.6 times a week.

“Maryland’s largest city has made a statement by implementing a law that is making the healthy choice the easy choice for families ordering kids’ meals in Baltimore,” said Shawn McIntosh, executive director of Sugar Free Kids Maryland, in a statement. “Our coalition is excited that Baltimore is improving the health of its children by making healthier choices easier to make. With one in three school-aged Baltimore children unable to maintain a healthy weight, we strongly believe this bill will help address the health crisis facing Baltimore’s youngest residents.”

Similar policies have been put in place at McDonald’s, Walt Disney World and restaurants in Stockton, California, and Lafayette, Colorado, which have passed similar legislation.

Baltimore restaurants had opposed the legislation as it made its way through the City Council this year, expressing concerns about over-regulation of businesses with already-tight margins.

“Public policy that interferes with the minutiae of restaurant operations exacerbates the business challenges already facing city restaurants,” said Melvin Thompson, a lobbyist for the association.”

Under the new law, one of three drink choices must be the default option for any restaurant that includes a pre-packaged kids meal option on its menu: water, milk or 100 percent fruit juice. Soda and sweetened fruit juice can be provided at a consumer’s request.

The Baltimore City Health Department is responsible for the enforcement of the law. Enforcement will be complaint-based and occur during routine restaurant inspections, a spokesperson for the department said.

Restaurants that do not follow the law are subject to a $100 fine.

In written testimony submitted to the council when the bill was considered, Thompson worried restaurants’ bottom lines could be threatened by increased wait times and higher prices as restaurants have to accommodate more questions from patrons and include costlier bottled beverages.

As of now, the restaurant association is sending members information about how the health department will enforce the law.

The health department says restaurants do not have to completely redo their menus. Stickers or papering over the old options and describing the new options will suffice.

Restaurants offering drinks from self-serve fountains do not have to change, but the health department suggests they place stickers over the healthy options that indicate they are kids’ meal approved.

Dr. Leana Wen, the city’s health commissioner, said the law should improve health outcomes for kids.

“The science is clear: one of the biggest contributors to childhood obesity is sugary drinks, and childhood obesity is a major risk factor for diabetes, heart disease, and early death,” she said in a statement. “Taking out empty calories from sugary drinks is a powerful lifestyle change we can make to help our children to get and stay healthy.


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