Bill requiring healthier vending machine fare fails

Capital News Service

Legislation that would have mandated state buildings, parks and colleges toss treats that exceed 200 calories per package from their vending machines will have to wait until next year for reconsideration, the measure's sponsor said Tuesday.

The Senate Finance Committee voted to kill the measure — the Maryland Healthy Vending Machine — on Monday. On Tuesday, the sponsor of companion legislation in the House, Del. Antonio Hayes, a Democrat from Baltimore, withdrew the measure in advance of a committee vote.

"We just want to step back for a minute and re-evaluate," Hayes said.

The action followed rhetorical clashes last week between health lobbyists and snack distributors.

A typical machine holds between 35 and 45 items, and the bill would have required at least 75 percent of them to follow the fat, sodium, sugar and calorie standards agreed on by the American Heart Association, National Alliance for Nutrition and Activity and the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Calories from fat and sugar could not have exceeded 35 percent of the snack's total calories, according to the bill, which aimed to mend Marylanders' eating habits and trim statewide obesity.

"We know that there is no silver bullet to this issue, and we don't pretend it to be, but according to our nation's experts, providing healthier food options is a very important component in making sure healthy food is available," said bill supporter Robi Rawl, executive director of Sugar Free Kids Maryland. An estimated 74 percent of consumers are trying to eat healthier, according to a 2010 study by the Snack Food Association, with about 65 percent eating specific foods to lose weight. Beverage consumption shows a similar push in nutrition, according to Michaeline Fedder of the American Heart Association, who said diet cola sells the fastest. Although diet beverages use artificial sweeteners, they would still be allowed under the bill, together with milk and 100 percent juice.

"If it should happen that a particular vending machine sells out of all the sugar-sweetened beverages in 12 hours then we've got a problem, but that's not what happens — what you find is that the healthy stuff goes first," Fedder said. "If it's not going to economically affect whoever is supplying those vending machines then they have no reason not to accommodate to public wishes."

"Public wishes" and public consumption are not the same thing, according to Scott Meskin, president of food vendor Black Tie Services. The bill opponent said he'd be willing to stock his 7,000 machines with healthy food, if only it would sell.

"I don't care what we sell," Meskin said. "I want to sell as much as we can and I want to sell what the consumer is asking me for."

What they're asking for is candy, according to Meskin, who singled out Peanut M&M's and Snickers as his top-seller candy items, accounting for 52 percent of candy profits. Black Tie Services supplies vending machines in Howard County government buildings, where the County Council has placed nutritional restrictions on county government vending machines. (Black Tie Services also stocks the snacks at the Baltimore Sun's office building, where the Howard County Times and Columbia Flier offices are located.)

Meskin further noted that "it's not vending machines that are driving people's diets." He said that the bill would have taken away freedom of choice; direct sales to street vendors; consolidate his locations because of reduced revenue; and cut jobs.

Even after all that, Meskin said, "the bill wouldn't make people healthier."

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