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Legislators try to outlaw soft drinks, sugary snacks at schools
Lawmakers in several states are pushing for legislation to help Americans become more active and eat healthier fare.

Among the bills just being written or introduced are ones that would stop the sale of soft drinks in school vending machines, put restrictions on the kinds of snack foods that can be offered, require fast-food restaurants to put nutrient information on food packages, and allocate funds for bike and walking paths.

But the lawmakers face an uphill battle. The National Soft Drink Association says that since 2001 it has tracked 76 proposed bills in 28 states that have attempted to restrict or ban the sale of carbonated drinks in schools. Only one in California passed, but it has not been enacted because the law also has requirements for school lunch funding that haven't been fulfilled.

The new bills include ones in:

  • Maine. State Rep. Sean Faircloth is the lead sponsor of the "Maine Obesity Package," being introduced Friday. One bill would require fast-food and chain restaurants in the state to display nutrient information prominently, on menu boards and menus, for example.

Another proposed bill would prohibit the sale of soft drinks in public school vending machines and require healthy snacks in vending machines. The obesity package also includes a state constitutional amendment that would provide funding for walking trails, bike lanes and cross-country ski trails.

  • California. State Sen. Deborah Ortiz is introducing legislation that would ban soft drinks from all public schools. (The California law that is on hold applies only to elementary and middle schools). She also is working on a bill that would call for more accessible nutrient information at fast-food chains.

State Sen. Tom Torlakson has a bill that calls for more money for fitness activities at after-school programs.

  • Minnesota. State Rep. Gene Pelowski is working on a bill that would have school vending machines sell milk instead of soft drinks.
  • Washington. State Sen. Jeanne Kohl-Welles has introduced a bill designed to set nutritional guidelines for foods sold in public elementary and middle schools but not in high schools. That would eliminate sales of soft drinks in those schools.
  • New York. State Rep. Felix Ortiz has introduced a law that would require fast-food and chain restaurants to give nutrient information on menu boards and regular menus.

"One of the problems is the federal government is moving too slow, so we in the states have decided to take action," Ortiz says.

"Public policies need to make it easier to eat well and be active," says Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based consumer group that advocates such legislation.

She knows these state bills face strong opposition. "These are controversial issues that are going to take several years to pass," Wootan says.

Kelly Brownell, director of the Yale Center for Weight and Eating Disorders, says "these are the first signs of a fight that will eventually be won — to rid schools of soft drinks and food high in sugar and fat."

But others see it differently. "We feel that it's important that parents and local school officials decide what foods and beverages are available at school, and that's not an appropriate decision for state governments to mandate," says Sean McBride, a spokesman for the National Soft Drink Association.

Steven Anderson, president of the National Restaurant Association, says labeling restaurant foods similar to grocery store products has been discussed for years but is not practical. Restaurant foods often are customized, which means their content varies, and it would be difficult to put nutrient labels on cups that are used for a variety of drinks, including juices, sugar and sugar-free sodas, he says.

"Many restaurants already do voluntary labeling to the best of their ability," Anderson says. "Some have nutrition information posted in the restaurant; some offer brochures."

Most Americans weigh too much. Almost 65% of adults are either overweight or obese, and 20% to 30% of children are either overweight or at risk of becoming so. Being overweight is linked to a higher risk of diabetes, heart disease, some types of cancer and other health problems.

 
 
 
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