Restaurants could be required to offer healthy drink options — not just soda — with kids' meals under legislation that has pitted public health advocates against the beverage and dining industries in Annapolis.
The original legislation would have banned the sale of sugary drinks in kids' meals, but a committee quashed that bill this week, prompting a behind-the-scenes scramble by health advocates who crafted a compromise proposal.
The new language would allow restaurants to continue to offer soda with kids' meals but would require them to offer three healthy options such as low-fat milk or bottled water. The change came together so quickly there was not enough time to make copies of the new language for the state senators reviewing the plan during a Thursday hearing.
"We brought life back to the issue," said Michealine Fedder, head of government relations for the American Heart Association of Maryland and a supporter of the bill.
The bill still has a long way to go to gain passage. Both the Senate Finance committee and then the full state Senate would have to approve the bill, and then it would have to be considered in the House of Delegates.
The issue offers a glimpse into the intricacies of getting legislation passed in Annapolis, especially on matters important to powerful interest groups — in this case, the health and medical community and the beverage and restaurant lobby.
Health advocates, led by the Sugar Free Kids Maryland coalition, wanted healthier options offered in kids meals in lieu of sugary sodas. Their original bill would have required restaurants to make only healthier drinks available and sought an upcharge on sodas.
Critics, led by the Restaurant Association of Maryland and the Maryland, Delaware, D.C. Beverage Association, said it is not the job of businesses to police what children drink and complained about charging more for soda and the cost of changing menus.
Members of the House Economic Matters Committee peppered health advocates with questions about cost and government intervention during a hearing last week before killing the bill Wednesday.
The senators were caught off guard by the bill, amended by health advocates to address concerns raised by the House committee.
"It's a shame you didn't get the amendment before they voted," said the Senate committee's chairman, Thomas M. Middleton, referring to the House committee.
Nearly a dozen people testified in favor of the bill, including physicians; Baltimore's health commissioner, Dr. Leana Wen; and a leader of the NAACP, who said black people drink more soda and have worse health outcomes than their white counterparts.
Obesity in children has more than doubled in the past 30 years, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In Baltimore, one in three children are overweight or obese, and one in four school-age children drink at least one soda a day, according to the city Health Department.
Some health advocates came armed with 8-ounce cups to illustrate how a small amount of soda can create havoc on a child's health, over time leading to diabetes, high blood pressure and obesity. The problem is getting worse as families eat more of their meals outside of the home.
"It is no longer a treat. It is a necessity," said Sen. Shirley Nathan-Pulliam, who introduced the bill. "It is fast and cheap, but there are consequences."
Supporters said they are not trying to take away parent choice, but want to make healthier options more prominent. Studies have shown that more parents will choose healthier options when they are presented.
"It is encouraging parents to make healthier and better choices for their children," Wen said.
Two lobbyists spoke on behalf of restaurants and beverage companies. The restaurant association said the bill interferes with the way restaurants do business and takes away parents' right to make decisions for their children.
"This legislation seeks to punish parents by charging them more for what proponents believe to be a bad decision," said Melvin R. Thompson, senior vice president of government affairs and public policy for the restaurant association.
Thompson said the group hadn't seen the amended bill, but would not support it as described.
Restaurants are facing increasing pressure from consumers and advocacy groups who are pushing for healthier options as the country deals with the growing obesity epidemic and problems with diabetes and high blood pressure.
Many chains such as McDonald's, Wendy's, Subway, Chipotle and Panera Bread have voluntarily limited soda from kids' meals, typically by listing healthy options on their menus. This week, Burger King became the latest, confirming that it had stopped listing sodas as an option with its kids' meals.
But legislating the issue has proved tough in jurisdictions across the country. The House voted down the legislation last year in Maryland and it was never introduced in the state Senate. Last year's bill got hung up on the nutritional value of fruit juice, which was not included as a healthy option.
This year, 100 percent juice was included, and health advocates were questioned by members of the Senate committee about why it was included when it also contains large amounts of sugar.
Separately, Howard County Executive Allan H. Kittleman signed an executive order repealing a measure adopted by his predecessor that barred the sale of sweet beverages on county property and at county-sponsored events, saying it clearly overstepped the role of government.
A similar ban in New York City was ruled unconstitutional in 2013.
During the Maryland Senate hearing, Sen. Stephen S. Hershey Jr. questioned the need for government to get involved.
"You want to put the responsibility on the restaurants rather than the parents," he said.