In Howard County, it's perfectly legal to consume the biggest, most gargantuan family-size bag of barbecue-flavored potato chips at one sitting and wash it down with a case of the most sugary soda ever made. Or, if that's not your taste, perhaps something more along the lines of the Homer Simpson diet with a thousand glazed doughnuts and a 64-ounce carton of chocolate syrup.
County employees can partake of this artery-clogging, stomach-distending meal as often as they'd like. So can public school students. And they can do so in a county building or park or at a county-sponsored festival.
But the one restriction the county has made is this: Howard County won't be your supplier. Under an executive order signed by County Executive Ken Ulman in 2012, healthier choices must be offered at county-sponsored venues and events. In the case of drinks, that means most sugar-sweetened soft drinks can't be sold and that at least half of packaged food offered by vendors must have 200 calories or less per serving.
No food or drink is banned. None. Zero. You can eat the worst stuff on the planet, but you better bring it yourself. If it's prepared food like funnel cake or cheeseburgers, there are no restrictions on sales whatsoever.
Yet one would think from the uproar over the Fourth of July celebration at Columbia's lakefront last weekend that Mr. Ulman was single-handedly killing freedom and the "right to choose." And this week, County Council member Greg Fox, a Republican, has introduced legislation to roll back the executive order and prevent Mr. Ulman from taking similar action in the future.
That Mr. Ulman is the Democratic Party's nominee to be the next lieutenant governor — sharing the ticket with Anthony Brown, the current lieutenant governor — probably has a lot to do with some of the trumped up outrage and the predictable "nanny state" protests that might have an impact on the gubernatorial race. Yet whether it will strike much of a chord with Howard County residents is another matter.
Easily lost in the politics is that Mr. Ulman's executive order regarding healthy food and beverages — along with an even more restrictive one adopted by the county school board that goes into effect this fall — is a reaction to an epidemic of obesity. More than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, and it's costing society more than $147 billion annually in medical costs, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
Diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure and certain types of cancer can be traced to unhealthy eating, particularly sugary drinks. That government might elect not to enable such bad choices — much as it doesn't sell or promote tobacco use on county property either — is hardly out of line. Private companies are taking similar actions with their own vending machines and company cafeteria menus.
We will admit this much: It's an inconvenient restriction on some vendors who prefer to keep hawking the unhealthy fare even if it's killing their clientele. And whether it should be applied fully to events that are not on county property, like the July 4th celebration, is a matter of debate. Already, Mr. Ulman has indicated that different criteria will be applied to such events in the future.
That's probably reasonable — much like the occasional caloric "splurge" is acceptable, too — but not only should Mr. Ulman's executive order be allowed to stand but more jurisdictions should be following suit. According to Centers for Disease Control statistics, Howard County’s obesity rate of 24.8 percent is second lowest in the state. Eleven counties have rates above 30 percent, including two of the state’s largest jurisdictions: Baltimore City and Prince George’s County.
Might there be moments when government goes too far to impose healthy choices on its citizenry? In theory, yes, but the reality is quite different. Whether there are fireworks involved or not, we remain a nation of cupcakes, fried pork rinds and Mountain Dew, and it's a lot easier to buy an unhealthy snack than to find a bag of carrots or apple slices in the local snack bar. Promoting healthy choices hardly seems like an over-reach.
The day a county actually bans a food or drink simply because it's high in calories is a different story. Should that ever happen, we might even join those who would march in Ellicott City. Under existing law, Howard County residents retain the right to make bad choices; the county seeks only to enable them to make better ones.
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