Howard County's new ban on the sale of sugary drinks on government property won't solve the obesity epidemic. It won't prevent Howard Countians from slurping down empty calories by the Big Gulpful. It won't stop them from eating things that are even more unhealthy, and it won't get them to exercise.
But the ban, announced Tuesday by County Executive Ken Ulman, is a step toward aligning the wares available at libraries, parks and office buildings with what the county's health department recommends about a healthy lifestyle, and for that reason alone it is worthwhile. If it proves to have a normative effect — that is, if it helps county residents conclude that sugary drinks should not be a mainstay of their diets — then all the better.
For all the hue and cry from the beverage industry, what Mr. Ulman is doing is actually quite modest. This is nothing like the impending ban Mayor Michael Bloomberg championed on sales of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces in New York City. It does not restrict what county restaurants, grocery stores or convenience stores can sell. It does not even prohibit county residents from bringing sugary beverages with them to county facilities, nor does it affect county schools (though Superintendent Renee Foose says the school board is watching Mr. Ulman's example).
The beverage industry insists that county residents should be given the opportunity to make the choice on their own about what to drink while at the library. But how far must that principle extend? Adults have the right to choose whether to smoke, so should the county also sell cigarettes in its public parks? Alcoholic beverages, consumed responsibly and in moderation, can be part of a healthy diet, too, so should we set up a Tiki bar outside the County Council chambers?
We know sugar-sweetened beverages are unhealthy. A wide body of evidence shows a strong association between consumption of those drinks — which has increased markedly in the last four decades — and obesity. More worrisome, the New England Journal of Medicine published a study by Harvard School of Public Health researchers in September suggesting that increased consumption of these drinks actually amplifies genetic predispositions to obesity. The Journal of the American Heart Association reported in 2009 that sugar-sweetened beverages are the biggest source of added sugars in Americans' diet. For children, the problem is particularly acute. A 2010 study in the Journal of the American Diabetes Association found that sugar-sweetened beverages are the single largest source of calories in teens' diets.
The problem with these beverages is their ubiquity. It's one thing for Howard County to allow the sale of funnel cakes at the county fair once a year, but it's another thing for it to tacitly promote the consumption of sugary sodas or sports drinks every day. (And, incidentally, a funnel cake has only slightly more calories than a 20-ounce Coke and includes at least some nutritional value, which Coke does not.)
Mr. Ulman acknowledges that this step, by itself, will not solve the problem of obesity in Howard County, but he says he hopes that it and other initiatives from the county government will begin to set a tone. He is now seeking recommendations from the health department on food sales on county property, and the Healthy Howard initiative, a groundbreaking effort to extend health care to the uninsured, has worked with local restaurants to promote healthy menu items. "You begin to paint a picture that this place supports healthy choices for its residents," Mr. Ulman says.
There are no easy answers for why obesity is on the rise in this country, and there will likely be no easy answers for how to stop it. But new data suggest it's possible. The New York Times reported on Tuesday that researchers have discovered, to their surprise, that childhood obesity has actually declined modestly in several cities. The reason for the decrease is not entirely clear, but the Times noted that the trend appeared in cities that have had coordinated anti-obesity strategies in place for several years.
As part of such an effort, Mr. Ulman's action has value, and it will have even more if it helps persuade the county school system to take stronger action. Ultimately, the beverage industry is right that consumers have choices, but actions like these, taken together, can help create a culture that encourages people to make healthy ones.