One of the defining moments of Republican Gov. Larry Hogan's first three months in office has been his willingness to compromise on certain issues, including the stormwater remediation fee — or "rain tax" — which he vigorously opposed during the campaign but, to the delight of the environmental community, eventually supported strengthening. In a state where Democratic voters outnumber Republicans 2-to-1, this is a smart move, particularly if the governor takes a similar tack on the still-undecided (and even more contentious) issue of education funding.

Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman, a fellow Republican, would be wise to approach the sale of sugary soft drinks and junk food on county-owned property much the same way. Before he took office, Mr. Kittleman vowed to make a repeal of his predecessor's restrictions on selling such unhealthy food and beverages his top priority — and did just that.


Next month, the county executive may find himself with a chance for a second bite of the apple — if that's not too healthy a food to use metaphorically with him. County Councilman Calvin Ball has submitted legislation to revive the standards Mr. Kittleman tossed out with some modest changes to soften their impact. The new version would exempt, for instance, large celebrations like Columbia's Wine if the Woods or non-profits like athletic leagues that might sell drinks at a soccer or football game.

While former County Executive Ken Ulman tried to completely ban full-calorie soft drinks and large-portioned junk food from all of the county's 120 or so vending machines located on government property of one form or other, Mr. Ball's bill would allow 25 percent of a vending machine's content to be unhealthy and 75 percent to be healthy (and presented at eye level). High-calorie drinks would have to be 25 cents per container more expensive than healthy drinks like water or diet soda. In county property where children are served (recreation centers, parks, libraries and other youth-oriented places), vending machines would have to be 100 percent healthy, however.

Howard County's public schools already abide by far stricter standards, as does Howard County General Hospital. Indeed, the move toward healthier food and beverage choices in government-owned facilities has extended to at least 60 jurisdictions across America including the cities of New York, Boston and Philadelphia and to a growing number of private companies anxious to improve their employees' health and perhaps lower insurance costs.

Everyone would be free to make their personal choices — even Mr. Ulman's plan allowed county workers or Wine in the Woods patrons to eat and drink as much of the most caloric foods they desired; they just couldn't buy it from a county-owned machine or vendor operating on county property. Instead, such legislation encourages healthy choices and acknowledges that Howard County, like the rest of the country, faces an obesity epidemic. High-calorie, low-nutrition food plays a role in that unfortunate trend, and eating a small bag of peanuts and drinking water instead of a big bag of potato chips and cola may even lower the county's health insurance costs.

Mr. Ball's legislation would also require the county to offer water as an alternative beverage free of charge at events. That would not only be healthy but probably a courtesy that visitors will appreciate whether or not they are counting calories.

Mr. Kittleman has not yet indicated whether he will support or oppose the legislation. In a somewhat ambiguous statement released by his office this week, he indicated he opposes "legislating people's diets." Yet the bill does nothing of the kind and, after spiking Mr. Ulman's healthy plan, support for the compromise would signal that Mr. Kittleman's outlook is not monolithic and that he cares about public health enough to be sure healthy choices are at least available on county property.

Frankly, this is an example of the message being more important than the substance. Raisins and Diet Dr. Pepper in the vending machine won't solve all the county's health issues, but they do send out a signal that such choices are important. Adolescent obesity rates have quadrupled over the last 30 years, and now more than one-third of U.S. adults are obese, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. How much longer is the crisis going to be ignored before governments, whether in Ellicott City or elsewhere, at least start putting their own houses in order and contribute just a bit less to the problem?