As part of the campaign, the Horizon Foundation launched HoCoUnsweetened.org, a website designed to help parents identify better drink choices and where to find them. On the website, the foundation created a "Better Beverage Finder," which shows parents where to find more than 300 healthier drink options in the county.

The kickoff event included the dumping of 9.6 tons of donated white sand in the school's parking lot, at the command of Burleigh Manor students. The sand was meant to represent the amount of sugar the school's students would consume each year if every student drank one 12-ounce soda a day.

The event and Ulman's order drew criticism from beverage industry officials, including the Maryland, Delaware, D.C. Beverage Association's executive vice president, Ellen Valentino, who said Ulman and the Horizon Foundation chose to hold a "photo op" over creating a holistic approach to health involving "exercise and moderation."

Valentino said recent trends show childhood obesity rising despite a drop in both soda consumption and the caloric content of the average beverage on supermarket shelves and in vending machines.

"It's important to look at trends and real solutions, and the importance of educating people on food moderation and maintaining healthy lifestyles," Valentino said. "This was a missed opportunity to look at the complex issues of obesity."

Citing data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the American Beverage Association said food — not beverages — is the larger source of added sugars in the diets of children and teens.

In 2010, Valentino said, the American Beverage Association published school guidelines that have helped decrease beverage calories available in schools by 90 percent. The industry has also put calorie labels "right on the front of every can, pack and bottle we produce," she said.

Acting Howard County health officer Maura Rossman acknowledged that sugary drink consumption is not the only factor contributing to childhood obesity, and advised county residents to "stay tuned" for more potential health improvements aimed at addressing obesity.

"I think we all agree there are other factors that come into play, but this was a good place to start," she said.

Valentino questioned where the government's role will stop.

"I think dictating and prohibiting and restricting individuals' choices is something that's not just bad for small business, but is widely unpopular in the public," she said.

At the Elkridge library Tuesday night, Bette Bitting, 63, of Jessup said she's inclined to support the county ban as a nurse — recently retired after 25 years working in the state corrections system. But she added she would be interested to see how the order is received by the public.

"I think a lot of people will be shouting and hollering," she said. "But Howard County is pretty health conscious about that stuff, more than other places."

The county has previously gained national attention for subsidizing health care plans for uninsured residents through its support of Healthy Howard Inc., and has been ranked the healthiest county in Maryland.

Growing up with a nutritionist mother and a father who worked in agriculture, Bitting said, she never had soda at home and was more used to snacking on fruits and vegetables. But kids today, and the young inmates she used to treat, are different — and heavier.

"It's crazy. I look at some of these kids today and think, 'Oh, my God,'" she said. Bitting often goes to another public library in Columbia, and said kids who arrive there after school often head straight to the vending machines.

"The first thing they do is hit the junk food," she said. "They should have never had it in there to begin with."

Kevin Smith, picking out children's books with his 4-year-old daughter, Mackensey, wasn't so sure.

"I understand the health element, but at the same time, I don't like someone trying to tell me I have to eat or drink what they want me to," he said. "It's almost kind of an insult — that I can't decide."

Baltimore Sun reporter Arthur Hirsch contributed to this article.

llavoie@tribune.com

krector@baltsun.com

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Ban on sugary drinks

The new Howard County beverage standards require:

•Sweetened beverages to have fewer than 5 calories per serving.

•Fruit and vegetable beverages to contain 100 percent juice with fewer than 120 calories in 8-ounce servings or less.

•Milk and soy options to be unflavored, low-fat or nonfat and contain less than 22 grams of sugar per 8-ounce serving or be limited to 8 ounces.

•Drinks with artificial sweeteners be limited to one-quarter of the total beverage offerings.