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Vote for healthy vending choices in Md.

Earlier this month, I visited the Maryland House of Delegates, speaking to local legislators about our proposed legislation — the Maryland Healthy Vending Act.

After several hours of speaking to decision makers, I headed into the public lounge in the state delegates' building to find a healthy snack and found little choice. What I did find in the vending machines were candy bars, peanut butter cups, microwave popcorn, assorted chips, cookies and gummy worms. The closest thing I could find to a healthy choice was a granola bar. For anyone looking to satisfy their hunger and stick to a healthy diet at the offices of our state leaders, the options are extremely limited, to say the least. Lawmakers, their staff and visitors shouldn't have to make the choice between staying hungry and eating a whole day's worth of sugar, salt and fat in one small package.

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Sadly, this vending machine is much more the rule than it is the exception. Vending companies in the state of Maryland and across the country continue to stock their machines with high-calorie and low-nutrition snacks thinking that consumers only want to buy junk food. They are wrong.

In 2016, consumers are more savvy than ever about nutrition and what they eat and drink. Polls and studies convincingly show that people will purchase healthier food and drink when offered. However, as we all know, it's hard to make a healthy choice when one does not exist.

By 2018, diseases caused by poor nutrition will likely cost Maryland's health care system at least $7.6 billion in direct medical costs alone, half of which will be publicly funded. And sadly, the vending machine choices found across the state are a part of the problem. Marylanders should not have to come home from work less healthy than when they left.

The Maryland Healthy Vending Act will make healthier choices more widely available. If the Maryland General Assembly passes this bill, 75 percent of food and drinks offered in state-operated vending machines will meet national nutrition standards — making decidedly healthier choices more available. The bill will also make it easier to locate healthier items by requiring clear and conspicuous calorie labeling on or near the machine so that consumers can make informed decisions about their food and drink purchases.

If you are really in the mood for a candy bar or cookies, this bill guarantees that you could still find them in a vending machine. For example, if you are looking for chips, you will have a real choice to make. You could choose to buy the high-calorie, high-fat type or the much healthier baked variety with less sodium and fewer calories. The same goes for cookies and energy bars and any other kind of snack you can imagine. Healthy? Less healthy? The choice is yours. This bill is a win-win for all consumers.

Taxpayers should like this bill, too. Each year, Maryland taxpayers spend more than $700 million on health benefits for state employees — much of which is spent treating heart disease, diabetes, high blood pressure and other diseases caused by poor diets. Reinventing vending machines will help lead to a healthier, less expensive and more productive workforce along with a healthier food environment for visitors to state facilities.

Is this bill the silver bullet to ending heart disease, diabetes and high blood pressure? No. But the Institute of Medicine, Centers for Disease Control and other health experts say that this bill is the perfect place to start. Maryland should make healthier food and drinks more widely available in state vending machines. More than 80 state and local governments have taken similar steps toward better health including Baltimore City and Howard County. And in places where these changes have taken place, vending machine revenue has stayed the same or even increased.

The Maryland Healthy Vending Act will lead to more and better food and drink choices, a healthier and less expensive workforce and stable or increasing vending machine revenue. Who can argue with that?

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It's time that Maryland lawmakers give the public what it wants and deserves. More choices, less junk and better health.

Robi Rawl (rrawl@medchi.org) is executive director of Sugar Free Kids Maryland.

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