Howard County Executive Ken Ulman moved Tuesday to ban the sale of high-sugar drinks such as soda in parks, libraries and other county properties and at county-sponsored events — hoping yet again to make the county a progressive model.
"I believe Howard County government should lead by example," Ulman said. "That's why today I've signed an executive order to increase the availability of healthy beverage options in our county departments and programs.
"The vending machines will look different, starting right away," Ulman said at an event in Ellicott City.
The sales and distribution ban — which mirrors efforts nationally and that may be adopted by Baltimore City — is aimed at reducing childhood obesity and raising awareness among parents and adults about the health hazards of sugary drinks.
But the ban also drew criticism from the beverage industry, which argues that public officials should allow consumers to make choices while emphasizing balanced diets and exercise, and from soda-drinking citizens.
David Dawes sat at a table in the Howard County Public Library in Elkridge on Tuesday night, a textbook and a can of Coca-Cola in front of him. The 22-year-old is studying for admission to graduate school.
"I work full-time, so after a long day, you need the energy, the caffeine," he said, "and I'd like to be able to get it."
Ulman announced the order Tuesday at Burleigh Manor Middle School — though sugary drinks were largely removed from schools several years ago — during a "Dump That Sugar" kickoff event. At the same time, the Columbia-based Horizon Foundation launched a public awareness campaign titled: "Howard County Unsweetened."
"We are not telling people what they can or can't serve in their store or restaurant," Ulman said. "We're just saying on county property or a county park or building, you are going to have a healthy option."
While other local governments in the Baltimore region do not have similar policies, Baltimore Health Department spokeswoman Tiffany Thomas Smith said the city is "definitely looking at applying" a sugary drink ban.
Nationally, one of the most high-profile efforts aimed at tackling childhood obesity was the so-called super-size ban by the New York City Board of Health. That city plans to prohibit the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces by restaurants and other food vendors, starting in March.
"It's time to face the facts: obesity is one of America's most deadly problems, and sugary beverages are a leading cause of it," Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said in a statement at the time. The ban has prompted court challenges from soft drink makers and a restaurant group.
The soft drink industry in recent years has introduced its own guidelines restricting certain drinks from schools. Counties also introduced their own restrictions. In Howard County, soda sales were prohibited in elementary schools and limited in middle schools in 2006. At high schools, vending machines can't contain more than 50 percent sodas.
Ulman's ban does not apply to county schools. But at the event Tuesday, Superintendent Renee Foose said the Board of Education is revising the school system's wellness policy to "reflect the commitment to wellness we are seeing throughout the county." She said the system would consider Ulman's order as part of that process.
Under the order, all beverages procured, served or sold by county departments must meet the new standards, which limit the number of calories per serving for soft drinks, artificially sweetened drinks, milk and milk substitutes, and fruit- and vegetable-based drinks. Sweetened beverages must have fewer than 5 calories per serving.
The order instructs county departments to begin the transition immediately, though only to "the extent possible under existing contracts."
It also requires the county health department to review the beverage standards at least every three years.
Horizon Foundation president and CEO Nicolette Highsmith Vernick said the campaign's ideals align with the county executive's order.
"Our goal is as simple as it is positive: to make it easier for parents and kids to make better beverage choices," Highsmith Vernick said. "We are working to change community norms to make it easier on moms and dads. We want parents to expect that healthy beverage options will be available wherever kids live, learn and play in Howard County."
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.
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.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun