Howard Countians celebrating the Fourth of July at Columbia's Lakefront this year can complement classic Independence Day fare such as hot dogs and hamburgers with a low-calorie side of reduced-fat chips or a pack of vegetables – and wash it all down with a Diet Coke.
On Friday, vendors running booths at the county's flagship fireworks event will have to comply with new regulations on their food and drink offerings for the first time since Howard County Executive Ken Ulman passed an executive order to ban sugary drinks and restrict other junk food in county buildings and at county-sponsored events.
While Ulman and health advocates have touted the regulations — the first and only of their kind in the state — as an important step in the fight against obesity, some vendors have balked at what they consider unnecessarily restrictive rules.
The executive order, signed into law on Dec. 11, 2012, effectively bans non-diet sodas at county-sponsored events and limits the percentage of high-calorie packaged snacks that vendors can offer.
According to the regulations, 50 percent of packaged food offered at county events must contain 200 calories or less per portion. Non-diet cold drinks must contain 40 calories or less, and diet drinks may only contain five calories and constitute only 33 percent of a vendor's beverage offerings.
Ulman's nine-point justification for the order argues that health care costs for the soaring rates of obese and overweight Americans — in 2012, 56 percent of Howard County adults reported being above a healthy weight — are a strain on the economy. The order cites an Institute of Medicine statistic attributing 20 percent of the nation's weight problems to consumption of sugary drinks.
While Howard's food and drink restrictions are unique in Maryland, they are part of a larger national trend of passing regulatory efforts in response to rising obesity rates.
In New York City, health officials recently attempted to limit soft drink consumption by banning sales of sugary drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces in city fast-food restaurants, delis and movie theaters. Last week, New York's highest court struck down the ban, ruling that the state's health department had overreached with its decree.
In Howard County, the regulations apply only to county buildings and events. "We are not telling people what they can or can't serve in their store or restaurant," Ulman said when he announced his executive order in 2012. "We're just saying on county property or a county park or building, you are going to have a healthy option."
But some local vendors worry the restrictions will harm their sales this holiday weekend. In their view, the order runs counter to the ideals of liberty and personal choice celebrated on the Fourth of July.
"I was furious when I first read this order because the bottom line is people have a choice of what they feed themselves," said Beth Barnes, who has operated a kettle corn stand at Lakefront Fourth of July celebrations for nearly a decade. "[The regulations are] a violation of a person's freedom, their right to choose."
"We work when everybody else plays, so we have to provide products that people want to have while they're playing," said Douglas Henley, who owns Convenience Catering and Concessions and will be flipping hot dogs and hamburgers at his Lakefront booth on the fourth.
The executive order doesn't place any restrictions on prepared foods like funnel cake, ice cream and Henley's burgers.
However, he and Barnes said, some customers are just looking for a cold drink.
"If it's hot, the soda and stuff goes like wildfire," Henley said.
Barnes' water sales have actually increased and soda sales have decreased in the past five years. But on Independence Day, she wants her customers to have options: "There could be some people who say, 'I don't keep soda in the house — let me get a Coke.' "
When they ask where they can get a non-diet soda, she added, "What am I going to say? Baltimore County?"
Health and policy officials who are supportive of Howard's food and beverage standards said the discussion shouldn't be limited to a dichotomy between full-sugar and diet soda options.
"There are hundreds of healthy beverage options out there," according to Ian Kennedy, director of communications for the Horizon Foundation, a Howard-based public health nonprofit that launched Howard County Unsweetened, an initiative to promote healthier drink options in the county, around the same time the executive order was passed.
The group has created a website, BetterBeverageFinder.org, to help residents find healthier drink options, including unsweetened teas, 100 percent fruit juices and flavored waters.
Sweetened beverages, Kennedy added, are "an easy thing to eliminate from your diet."
Elizabeth Edsall Kromm, the county's policy director, called sugary drinks the "low-hanging fruit" in a larger effort to make Howard County a healthier place to live.
"Howard County has a long history of initiatives and policies that promote a culture of health, and this was seen as a piece of policy to build a model public health community, and a critical one at that," Kromm said.
"We're chipping away at this," she added. "[Obesity and its accompanying health risks are] a big problem to address, but slowly I think we're turning the corner where we're creating a culture of health where it's really easy to make healthy choices."
Though Ulman's executive order was passed more than a year and a half ago, Kromm and county communications director David Nitkin said the implementation of its directives has been a gradual process.
In some cases, the county has had to wait until vendor contracts are up to impose the new rules, Nitkin said. For example, a request for proposals to stock vending machines in Howard-owned buildings just recently closed, and the chosen bidder will operate under the new rules starting in the fall.
"We've done what we can and [county vending machines are] as compliant as we could possibly make them. Later this year, they'll be fully compliant," Nitkin said.
Regarding enforcement, Nitkin said the county won't “proactively enforce” the standards. “It's similar to the ban on smoking in parks,” he said. “We've had tremendous voluntary compliance, because it's what people want.”
This year's Fourth of July event is the first major county event subject to the new restrictions.
Another popular county event, Wine in the Woods, might not be required to abide by them them at all.
Though a county-sponsored tent at the festival "followed the rules to the letter" by offering low-calorie, non-alcoholic beverage options, "Wine in the Woods continues to be a wine festival ... and that beverage needs to be treated differently," Nitkin said.
And vendors at the Howard County Fair do not have to comply because the fair and the fairgrounds are not operated by the county; but the rules would apply to items sold at the county's annual 50+ Expo, held in October.
County Council member Greg Fox, a Republican from western Howard, doesn't want to give them the chance. Fox has filed legislation that seeks to negate Ulman's executive order.
The bill would remove any "limits on the kinds of foods or beverages sold on county-owned property or during county-sponsored events."
Fox said he didn't think making lifestyle choices for citizens was the county's role.
"Adults can make adult decisions and the market can take care of healthier things," he said, pointing to an expanding variety of healthy and low-calorie snack options in today's stores.
A representative from the Maryland, Delaware, D.C. Beverage Association, Ellen Valentino, agreed with Fox's assessment.
"The Fourth of July is a day in which Marylanders celebrate their freedoms," she said. "The irony is not lost when a family can't purchase a soda or lemonade at a celebration. The good news is that the soft drink industry has many options to choose from."
Nitkin said the rules didn't restrict any freedoms: "People have freedom to bring the soft drink of their choice" to the event, he said.
"Bottom line," he added, "we think this has been a reasonable, thoughtful roll-out of a policy that's designed to boost access to healthy choices. We know it's going to be a process and we know that people who are involved in food and beverage sales are going to have to make changes to meet the standards, but we think over time, this is the direction that we want Howard County to head and we think it's the direction the world is heading."