A truck dumps 9.6 tons of white sand, representing sugar, in… (Baltimore Sun Media Group…)
Howard County Executive Ken Ulman moved Tuesday to ban the sale of high-sugar drinks such as soda in parks, libraries and other county properties and at county-sponsored events — hoping yet again to make the county a progressive model.
"I believe Howard County government should lead by example," Ulman said. "That's why today I've signed an executive order to increase the availability of healthy beverage options in our county departments and programs.
"The vending machines will look different, starting right away," Ulman said at an event in Ellicott City.
The sales and distribution ban — which mirrors efforts nationally and that may be adopted by Baltimore City — is aimed at reducing childhood obesity and raising awareness among parents and adults about the health hazards of sugary drinks.
But the ban also drew criticism from the beverage industry, which argues that public officials should allow consumers to make choices while emphasizing balanced diets and exercise, and from soda-drinking citizens.
David Dawes sat at a table in the Howard County Public Library in Elkridge on Tuesday night, a textbook and a can of Coca-Cola in front of him. The 22-year-old is studying for admission to graduate school.
"I work full-time, so after a long day, you need the energy, the caffeine," he said, "and I'd like to be able to get it."
Ulman announced the order Tuesday at Burleigh Manor Middle School — though sugary drinks were largely removed from schools several years ago — during a "Dump That Sugar" kickoff event. At the same time, the Columbia-based Horizon Foundation launched a public awareness campaign titled: "Howard County Unsweetened."
"We are not telling people what they can or can't serve in their store or restaurant," Ulman said. "We're just saying on county property or a county park or building, you are going to have a healthy option."
While other local governments in the Baltimore region do not have similar policies, Baltimore Health Department spokeswoman Tiffany Thomas Smith said the city is "definitely looking at applying" a sugary drink ban.
Nationally, one of the most high-profile efforts aimed at tackling childhood obesity was the so-called super-size ban by the New York City Board of Health. That city plans to prohibit the sale of sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces by restaurants and other food vendors, starting in March.
"It's time to face the facts: obesity is one of America's most deadly problems, and sugary beverages are a leading cause of it," Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg said in a statement at the time. The ban has prompted court challenges from soft drink makers and a restaurant group.
The soft drink industry in recent years has introduced its own guidelines restricting certain drinks from schools. Counties also introduced their own restrictions. In Howard County, soda sales were prohibited in elementary schools and limited in middle schools in 2006. At high schools, vending machines can't contain more than 50 percent sodas.
Ulman's ban does not apply to county schools. But at the event Tuesday, Superintendent Renee Foose said the Board of Education is revising the school system's wellness policy to "reflect the commitment to wellness we are seeing throughout the county." She said the system would consider Ulman's order as part of that process.
Under the order, all beverages procured, served or sold by county departments must meet the new standards, which limit the number of calories per serving for soft drinks, artificially sweetened drinks, milk and milk substitutes, and fruit- and vegetable-based drinks. Sweetened beverages must have fewer than 5 calories per serving.
The order instructs county departments to begin the transition immediately, though only to "the extent possible under existing contracts."
It also requires the county health department to review the beverage standards at least every three years.
Horizon Foundation president and CEO Nicolette Highsmith Vernick said the campaign's ideals align with the county executive's order.
"Our goal is as simple as it is positive: to make it easier for parents and kids to make better beverage choices," Highsmith Vernick said. "We are working to change community norms to make it easier on moms and dads. We want parents to expect that healthy beverage options will be available wherever kids live, learn and play in Howard County."
As part of the campaign, the Horizon Foundation launched HoCoUnsweetened.org, a website designed to help parents identify better drink choices and where to find them. On the website, the foundation created a "Better Beverage Finder," which shows parents where to find more than 300 healthier drink options in the county.