Customers responded with enthusiasm when Antoine Dow first added a healthy choices menu to his grocery store in 2007. The owner of A & Ms. Dot's Grocery, at 1600 Druid Hill Ave., began offering protein smoothies and fresh lemonade sweetened with honey to provide an affordable and healthy alternative, he said.
He said that same drive motivated him to testify in front of the City Council Health Committee on Tuesday, in support of a bill that would require warnings about sugar-sweetened beverages on advertisements, menus and other locations where the beverages are sold.
"The bill, if it could stop people from drinking sugary drinks, it could save lives," Dow said before the hearing, as he stood outside City Hall beside a 20-foot tall blow-up soda can labeled with "Diabetes."
More than 60 people, including soda distributors, city health officials, local business owners and beverage industry advocates, packed the hearing chamber and waiting room. Those testifying in favor of the bill said it was a health and justice issue, while those against it raised economic concerns.
The bill proposed by Councilman Nick Mosby requires a warning label about the risks of consuming sugar-sweetened beverages to be placed on point-of-purchase locations, such as menus or convenience store cash registers. The measure would help residents make a more informed choice, leading to "reduced caloric intake, a healthier diet, and improved overall health," the bill states.
Such legislation would be the first of its kind on the East Coast and the second in the United States. A similar measure goes into effect in July in San Francisco.
A study by the Perelman School of Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania found parents are less likely to purchase a sugar-sweetened beverage when a warning label about obesity, diabetes or tooth decay is present, as opposed to no label or a label only showing calorie count.
Dr. Leana Wen, city health commissioner, supports the bill and said the Health Department is concerned about the increase in children who are overweight, obese or have Type 2 diabetes.
"I am seeing children who have diseases, who for the first time in our history, used to only affect our adults," Wen said during a press conference before the hearing. "We're seeing an epidemic in childhood obesity."
Sugar-sweetened beverages are the leading cause of childhood obesity, Wen said. One in three Baltimore children are overweight or obese and heart disease is the leading cause of death in Baltimore, Wen said during the hearing. She said she supports the bill because it provides increased education to make an informed decision.
Dr. Maya Rockeymoore, CEO of Global Policy Solutions, called the bill a "civil rights imperative." African Americans are more likely to develop obesity and Type 2 diabetes, she said, and the beverage industry disproportionately targets African American neighborhoods with advertising.
"These conditions are causing unnecessary pain, suffering and early death in our communities," Rockeymoore said.
She praised the warning label as a way for consumers to see the link between consuming sugary beverages and adverse health effects.
Cailey Locklair Tolle, president of Maryland Retailers Association, said a warning label for sugary drinks ignores the many factors that contribute to an unhealthy lifestyle, while putting an undue burden on businesses.
"Legislation likes this makes it more difficult to conduct business in Baltimore City," she said. "The more regulations that are piled on our industry, the harder it is to stay in Baltimore."
Several local business owners testified about the possible economic impact of having to post signs in their stores and non-compliance fines, which Councilman Mosby said would carry a maximum penalty of $1000.
The Association of National Advertisers opposed the bill in a letter, stating, "There are numerous steps the City Council can take to address the obesity challenge that do not involve advertising restrictions."
Dr. Courtney Gaine, CEO of The Sugar Association, said the role of sugar in American diets is misunderstood. Less than 5 percent of a child's caloric intake is from soda or sports drinks, she said.
Opponents of the bill said soda consumption is at a 30-year low in the United States, while the bill states caloric intake from sugar-sweetened beverages increased by 135 percent between 1977 and 2001.
The Food and Drug Administration recommends consuming no more than 10 percent of daily calories from sugar. The American Heart Association recommends no more than six teaspoons of sugar a day for most women and nine teaspoons a day for most men. One can of non-diet soda contains 10 teaspoons of sugar, according to WebMD.
Mosby responded to opponents to the bill, repeating that the bill is not the single solution for a healthier Baltimore but a variable. The proposed measure adds an "extra layer of education," he said.
Mosby said the bill is not an attack on local businesses, but rather "an attack on preventable disease."
The councilman admits the bill is personal, having lost his father to heart disease when Mosby was 14 years old.
Proponents of the bill likened the measures to the warning labels on tobacco products passed in the Federal Cigarette Labeling and Advertising Act of 1965 and the Public Health Cigarette Smoking Act of 1969 because the measures do not stop the purchase of the product, but educate consumers.
Mosby said the bill is "about being on the right side of history."