One State's Battle Over Kids' Drinks at Restaurants

Beth Greenfield
·Senior Editor

Photo by Image Source/Getty Images

Reflecting a national trend of states and municipalities fighting childhood obesity, Maryland legislators are pushing for a bill that would dictate which beverages are permitted in kids’ meals at restaurants. The law, proposed last week in an economics committee meeting by Delegate Cheryl Glenn (D-Baltimore City), would limit drink options in children’s meals to bottled water, low-fat milk, or 100 percent fruit juice. It would affect both dine-in restaurants and fast-food chains, slapping those who don’t comply with up to $1,000 fines and 90 days in jail.

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But while proponents say it would help improve kids’ health, critics say the bill is ill-conceived — not to mention an overstepping of boundaries.

“You can’t legislate parenting,” said Delegate C.T. Wilson (D-Charles) at the committee meeting, according to Herald-Mail Media. “It’s my job to tell my girls ‘no,’ especially when it’s hard.”

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That’s a sentiment David DeLugas, executive director and general counsel for the National Association of Parents, agrees with. “I cannot commend delegate Wilson more — you cannot legislate parenting, nor should you,” he tells Yahoo Parenting. “It’s a fundamental right and can’t be interfered with unless there is a compelling state interest.” Plus, DeLugas adds, “What if my child is underweight? What if he needs high calories? Who is the state of Maryland to tell me I can’t give him whole milk — or a milkshake — at dinner?”

But according to the non-profit Sugar Free Kids Maryland, a statewide advocacy coalition fighting childhood obesity, the bill is necessary. “Sugary drinks contribute more calories and added sugars to our diets than any other food or beverage,” notes its website, “and daily consumption is strongly linked to higher childhood obesity and type 2 diabetes rates.” In addition, the site notes, families eat out more than ever, especially at fast-food places, and drinking just one 8-oz sugary drink a day increases a child’s odds of becoming obese by 60 percent.

“Going out to eat is very normal for kids now. It’s not the treat it was,” Robi Rawl, executive director of Sugar Free Kids Maryland, told Herald-Mail Media. “We want to make the healthier choice the easier choice and allow parents to make choices for their children without restaurants interfering.”

Such ideas are part of what’s driving similar pieces of legislation around the country: In November, Berkeley, Calif. became the first U.S. city to pass a law taxing sugary drinks, with more than three-quarters of voters backing a 1-cent-an-ounce tax on soft drinks. At least eight other states — including Illinois, Nebraska and Vermont — are considering similar measures. And while a New York City proposal to ban jumbo-size sugary beverages was blocked by a New York state judge, both Hawaii and Cambridge, Mass., are considering size-based bans.  

But the “nanny-state” objections of parental-rights advocates like DeLugas loom large — especially, he notes, when there are so many components contributing to childhood obesity, and when there’s a continuing disappearance of recess and physical education. Also, notes DeLugas — who is the lawyer for the Meitivs, the Maryland parents recently found responsible for child neglect after allowing their two children to walk unaccompanied to nearby playgrounds — there is an irony in limiting a child’s ability to walk and play outside while placing so much focus on restaurant sodas. “Are they also outlawing the dessert in kids’ meals? And frying food in oils other than olive oil?” he asks. “Plus, I could always order a soda and my kid will just drink mine. This [proposal] is not actually a solution.”  

Some nutritionists tend to agree, pointing to evidence, including a 2014 recent study out of the Childhood Obesity Research Center of the University of Southern California, showing that fruit juice has barely less fructose than what’s contained in soda. “The human body isn’t designed to process this form of sugar at such high levels,” lead study researcher and center director Michael Goran said in a statement at the time. “Unlike glucose, which serves as fuel for the body, fructose is processed almost entirely in the liver where it is converted to fat, which increases risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease and liver disease.”

From a business perspective, the National Restaurant Association, of course, is also against Maryland’s proposal and others like it. “Anti-soda legislation has been widely rejected by state legislatures,” Brendan Flanagan, vice president of state and local affairs, has said. “Obesity is the result of many factors, including diet, exercise, and genetics. Most policymakers recognize that banning or taxing sugar-sweetened beverages won’t solve the problem.”