Baltimore leaders are poised to approve a ban on trans fats in restaurant food, putting the city on the front edge of a trend that supporters argue will reduce the incidence of heart disease.
The ban, introduced in the City Council in January, has picked up momentum in recent days, facing surprisingly little opposition and gaining the support of Mayor Sheila Dixon.
Baltimore officials wrestled for more than a year over a smoking ban for restaurants and bars - legislation ultimately approved - but are embracing the proposal to ban trans fats with relative speed.
"This is a movement," said the ban's chief sponsor, City Councilwoman Agnes Welch, who has cast the measure as part of a larger crusade to reduce childhood obesity. "This is a call to action to save our children."
The bill follows trans fat bans enacted in Philadelphia, New York City and Montgomery County. Any prepared food product containing partially hydrogenated vegetable oil - such as shortening or margarine - would be prohibited by the legislation.
After a two-hour hearing last night that included testimony from about a half-dozen people, the City Council's Public Safety and Health Committee voted 3-0 to advance the bill to the full council. It faces at least two more votes.
Last night's debate was sharply different from a 2006 hearing on the smoking ban - which was contentious and continued long into the evening - even though banning trans fats raises the same questions for many people about the government's role in regulating what was once a matter of personal choice.
Welch, in fact, raised those same questions early last year when she chose to abstain from voting on the smoking ban. "I think the state should step up, because it's unfair for us to penalize our people in the city who want to smoke and want that choice," she said from the council floor at that time.
Some have said opposition to the trans fat bill might be light because many restaurants - including fast-food chains - are moving away from the ingredients on their own.
Edward Dopkin, who owns several Baltimore restaurants, including Alonso's and Miss Shirley's - which, he said, do not use trans fats - handed out cookies and snacks to council members at the hearing. His point: The ban does nothing to address trans fats in packaged food sold in corner stores and gas stations.
"If you're going to do it, I don't understand why everyone shouldn't be included," he said. "You're looking the other way on all of the other products."
City Councilman Bernard C. "Jack" Young - who voted against the smoking ban last year but in favor of the trans fat ban last night - said that although he supports the legislation, he is concerned about local government overstepping its bounds.
"I think you are really intruding on a lot of things dealing with people's liberties," he said.
Baltimore's smoking ban, which was approved in February 2007, prompted the General Assembly to enact a statewide ban that went into effect Feb. 1. It is not clear whether the state would take the lead of Baltimore City and Montgomery County on a trans fat ban.
Del. James W. Hubbard, a Prince George's County Democrat, has unsuccessfully pushed a statewide trans fat ban in the past. Legislators are considering this year whether to create a task force to study the issue.
Sterling Clifford, a spokesman for Dixon, said that the mayor expects to sign the bill - a decision that could play a key role in helping on-the-fence council members make up their minds.
"Kids are not really in a position to make informed choices about what kind of foods they eat, and parents don't always have the time to sort through healthy menu choices," Clifford said. "We're happy to take a leadership position on this issue."
Trans fats, often found in oils used for fast food and packaged snacks, can clog arteries and lead to heart disease. Some studies blame the fats for as many as 50,000 fatal heart attacks a year. The American Heart Association recommends that people limit trans fats to less than 1 percent of their daily calories.
The ban would apply to any establishment where food is prepared for sale, including restaurants, deli counters and fast-food chains.
The legislation has a number of kinks, though. For instance, it currently calls for no penalty for violators. Council members said they would work to include one before the bill comes up for a final vote. The legislation was amended yesterday so that it would take effect 18 months after it is enacted.
"This is one of those things in public health that can be accomplished as long as there's an appropriate phase-in period," said Dr. Joshua M. Sharfstein, the city's health commissioner. "The health department is very supportive of this approach."