ANNAPOLIS — In an effort to battle childhood obesity, some legislators are seeking to regulate the types of drinks Maryland restaurants offer as part of children’s meals.
A bill presented Tuesday by Delegate Cheryl Glenn, D-Baltimore City, at the state House Economic Matters Committee, would limit drink options included in children’s menu meals to bottled water, low-fat milk or 100 percent fruit juice. Other drinks, like soda, could still be offered, but for an additional charge.
Fast-food chains in the state, like Burger King and Subway, would fall under the regulation, as would traditional dine-in restaurants.
A child who drinks one 8-ounce sugary drink per day increases their odds of becoming obese by 60 percent, according to a study by the Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity at Yale University in 2012.
“Going out to eat is very normal for kids now. It’s not the treat it was. We want to make the healthier choice the easier choice and allow parents to make choices for their children without restaurants interfering,” said Robi Rawl, executive director of Sugar Free Kids Maryland.
She calls the rise in childhood obesity a “public health crisis” and says recommendations are not enough, as only 3 percent of restaurants nationwide comply with recommended National Restaurant Association dietary guidelines.
“We spend some $2 billion in Maryland on diseases that could be prevented,” said Dr. Brian H. Avin, former president of MedChi, the Maryland State Medical Society. “If we reduce that burden, the state would have money to spend on other things.”
Avin, a neurologist, said that a change in the default beverage offered by restaurants would cut out the conflict between parents and kids at mealtime and help change individuals’ behavior over time.
But Delegate C.T. Wilson, D-Charles, said that he thinks there is a larger issue in question: parenting.
“You can’t legislate parenting. It’s my job to tell my girls ‘no,’ especially when it’s hard,” he said.
Rawl said 75 percent of parents in Maryland support the bill, according to an OpinionWorks survey of more than 800 individuals.
Violators would be subject to Department of Health and Mental Hygiene license punishments, including up to a $1,000 fine and 90 days imprisonment for the first offense.
A partner bill is scheduled to be presented by state Senator Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, D-Baltimore, at the state Senate Finance Committee next week.
Sugar Free Kids Maryland is also backing a bill that would repeal the 6 percent tax on bottled water in the state.