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Effort to regulate kids' meals in Vermont restaurants likely to fail

Lawmakers try to clamp down on sodas & other sugary drinks

COLCHESTER, Vt. - "I talk to thousands of kids that deal with weight issues," Tom Murphy said. "And how dare I have a restaurant and not have the responsibility to at least point parents in the right direction? When you look at a single soda that has 10, 11, 12 teaspoons of sugar -- I tell adults and parents all the time, 'open up. Let's eat 12 teaspoons of sugar and see what it does to you'."

Murphy is a former mixed martial arts fighter who now teaches kids to fight bullying. He also owns Twiggs, a restaurant in St. Albans, and he supports an effort to change the law.

Vermont Senate Bill 70 would require the default drink in a restaurant kids' meal to be milk, water or 100% fruit juice. You could still substitute a sugary drink, like a soda, back into the meal...if you ask.

An eight-ounce cup of soda may not look like much of a sugary drink, but it's the amount the American Heart Association recommended in 2016 that kids be limited to for an entire week. The Centers for Diease Control and Prevention said last year that nearly two-thirds of American kids drink at least that much on any given day...and that can add up quickly.

"If you're a child that consumes, every additional sugary drink a day that you have, you have a 60% chance more of becoming obese," Tina Zuk said.

She's the senior director for Vermont government relations for the American Heart Association, which has pushed hard for this change.

"The average age for the kids who have these meals -- they're not teenagers," Zuk said. "They're two-to-five-year-olds, and what we feel is, these children are starting to form eating habits now that are going to last a lifetime, so why should we serve them up unhealthy first?"

Wendy Knight, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Tourism & Marketing, has pushed back. "If we're interested in addressing childhood obesity, the best strategy is to encourage parents and guardians to get outside and be active with their children," she said.

Knight, and Ronda Berns of the Vermont Chamber of Commerce, have told lawmakers they're concerned about government raising the cost of doing business for restaurants.

"They're already being impacted quite a bit by mandates and changes and things that are happening in this industry, and it's just cumulative," Berns told the Vermont House Committee on Human Services. "I truly believe that if we did an outreach with education programs, with our connections with the Heart Association, with the National Restaurant Association, with our support with all the local chambers, we would be able to do a really good education partnership outreach program to these restaurants, asking them to start really taking a look at all their menus, and when they go making up new menus, to really consider what's in the best interest of Vermont's children. We feel that this partnership would be a better alternative to doing a mandate, and so I really do prefer education in partnership over that."

"While this compromise, default sugary beverage bill seems benign, it still imposes costs on restaurants," Knight said. "It forces them to print new menus and adjust their inventory, which is costly and burdensome."

A Beverage Association of Vermont lobbyist claims customer demand is already forcing the marketplace to offer healthy drink choices. Andrew MacLean told the House Committee on Human Services that last year, for the first time, non-sugared beverages outsold sugary drinks at the Champlain Valley Fair.

"The mix of product being sold in Vermont is changing and has changed a lot over the last five years," he testified. "Regular Coke used to be the prime seller. It's not anymore. They (Beverage Association clients) sell a lot of -- they're branching out into teas, sugar-free drinks, water, seltzer, a lot of that."

Following his testimony, MacLean told us, "We disagree with some of the statements that are made in there about the impact of our products on obesity, et cetera, but we believe people are entitled to options. There are options still available in this."

"We really struggle with having enough time to sit down as a family and have meals together," Dr. Farryl Bertmann said. "That is the case certainly for me with my family, but we also see that with low-income Vermonters."

Dr. Bertmann is a lecturer within UVM's Department of Nutrition and Food Sciences. She says making the healthy drink choice the easy choice would help thousands of families, but it's possible to go too far.

"You don't want to overstep somebody's ability to make those choices for themselves," she said. "We've seen sometimes there can be backlash."

Senate Bill 70 originally covered the food in kids' meals as well as the drinks. Some lawmakers saw the food provisions as overly restrictive, so the Senate dropped them before passing the bill.

"We heard a lot of talk about 'this is the nanny state, this is the government intruding into parental prerogatives'," Senator Dick McCormack of Bethel said. "As a father and grandfather, I see it as not only not a nanny-state thing; I see it as the exact opposite. It's defending parents from what is actually an assault on their parental prerogatives -- not from the government; from various restaurants."

Murphy says while he wants to make money at Twiggs, other considerations sometimes trump the profit motive.

"When you have legislatures come in and say, 'you have to do this', sure, that's tricky," he said, "but at the same time, do we look backwards and say, 'my God, what did we do to our children at that expense?'"

Even though the Vermont Senate has passed it, the sugary drinks bill now appears to be dead. It's stuck in a House committee, and while the House can take it up during this week's special session, Governor Phil Scott has asked lawmakers to focus exclusively on the state budget.

I also reached out to several fast-food chains for this story. Only one of them replied.

Angele Busch, the New England regional brand reputation manager for McDonald's, provided a statement that said the chain has offered milk as a default beverage for a number of years and will soon add water to the list. She said McDonald's removed soft drinks from the Happy Meals section of its menu, leading to a substantial increase in the number of Happy Meals ordered that included water, milk or juice as their beverage choice.

"We’re also looking beyond beverages," the statement said. "McDonald’s recently announced that by this summer, 100 percent of the meals offered on McDonald’s Happy Meal menus in the U.S. will be 600 calories or fewer, and 100 percent of those Happy Meal combinations will be compliant with our new nutrition criteria for added sugar and saturated fat, and 78 percent compliant with our new sodium criteria. These changes will help to impact kids' calories, saturated fat, sodium and added sugar in Happy Meals, and enable families to make informed choices within an appropriate calorie level for youth meals."


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