Childhood obesity task force calls for attention to vending machines, sodas

A state obesity panel continues to call attention to sugary drinks and vending machine offerings.

A new state task force report looking at ways to reduce childhood obesity has waded into simmering controversies surrounding sugary drinks and junk food in vending machines and even the amount of physical education kids get at school.

The report from the Governor's Office for Children does not specifically call for legislation or regulation moderating access to sugary drinks or foods, efforts that have drawn opposition from Republicans and the industry in Maryland. The mere mention, however, pleases advocates for government action to stem what they call an epidemic that has made Maryland the 26th-most-obese state, according to one 2014 national survey.

"Of course at Sugar Free Kids, we'd prefer stronger language," said Robi Rawl, executive director of the advocacy group that has pushed for "healthy vending" legislation. "But it's great to sit around a table and hear everyone recognizing childhood obesity and teen diabetes as a problem and recognizing something needs to be done here. We've started the conversation on what's the best way forward."

Issued this month, the report recommended "encouraging making healthier food and drink options more widely available in vending machines, canteens and cafeterias located on state property." It also called for the state to "develop policies and implement practices to reduce overconsumption of sugary drinks, one of the largest contributors to childhood obesity."

There's no mandate, and it's not clear what will come from the task force report, ordered last year by the state legislature and developed after several meetings of members from state agencies and the community, including Rawl.

The General Assembly also ordered a similar one this year by officials at the state Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, which also participated in the Office for Children task force. Officials there offered no comment.

"The health and well-being of our children and teens are important to Governor Hogan, and he looks forward to reviewing the task force's recommendations," said Erin Montgomery, a spokeswoman for the governor.

She said that the governor has not decided on priorities for the next legislative session.

A bill to require that 75 percent of the options in vending machines on state property meet a set of dietary guidelines failed in the General Assembly this year. Many cities nationwide have passed such legislation, and Democrats on the Howard County Council overrode a veto of similar legislation last year by County Executive Allan Kittleman, a Republican. Baltimore City also has healthy vending regulations in place.

Ellen Valentino, a lobbyist for the Maryland-Delaware-D.C. Beverage Association, opposes such legislation and regulation and said the industry has already been responding to consumer demands for healthier options. She said mandating changes is unpopular with the public, which prefers to make its own choices about soda. It also was not met favorably by courts in New York, which shot down in 2014 then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg's attempt to ban large-size sodas.

"The good news is that the industry is responding to the market," Valentino said. "Obesity is serious problem, and we need real solutions and to stop using one beverage as a detractor for moving forward."

Still, Valentino said, she supports collaboration on those solutions. So does Del. Antonio Hayes, a Baltimore Democrat who introduced the healthy vending legislation. He plans to work with other stakeholders before the next session to "improve" the bill and was pleased to hear the task force report was keeping the issue at the forefront.

Hayes noted that thousands of people work and visit state property, and the state pays the bill for employee and public health insurance. Having healthier options on state property was a good investment, and would more than offset the estimated $554,000 to launch a new vending program, he said.

"It's good news that they're looking at opportunities to reduce childhood obesity," he said. "It was much of the impetus for my legislation."

Gene Ransom, the CEO of MedChi, the state's medical society, applauded the task force report. MedChi, which was a founding member of Sugar Free Kids Maryland, said it looks forward to working with Hogan's Office of Children to implement the report's recommendations.

Another potentially hot-button issue in the task force report is the recommendation to increase the amount of time dedicated to physical education in elementary and middle schools.

A general decline in physical activity has been linked to a rise in obesity around the world.

A national advocacy group called SHAPE America, representing health and physical educators, said a vast majority of schools do not meet their goals to provide substantial physical education through high school graduation. The group said Maryland requires physical education in kindergarten through eighth grade and requires high schools to provide classes but doesn't specify a time or duration.

Paula Kun, a spokeswoman for the group, said many people agree about the need for physical education during school, but academics have become the priority over the years.

"There hasn't been enough time," she said for physical education. "And it's not been addressed as a core subject so therefore not given attention it deserves. ... We're optimistic we can convince the public how important it is to overall education. Obesity is a problem and children are physically inactive."

meredith.cohn@baltsun.com

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