Nation’s first comprehensive anti-obesity package bans junk food in schools & calls for restaurant menu labeling

Legislators in Maine today introduced a series of bills that would ban sales of soda and junk food in schools, require calorie labeling on chain restaurant menus, and promote transportation policies that encourage walking, biking, and other forms of exercise. Public health advocates, including the Washington, DC-based Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) heralded the legislation as the nation’s first comprehensive anti-obesity effort and a model that should be replicated in other states and in Congress.

The legislation comes as Maine struggles to pay rising obesity-related healthcare costs, which lawmakers estimate at close to $1 billion annually. The Surgeon General’s 2001 report on overweight and obesity put annual obesity-related healthcare costs at $117 billion nationwide. Those costs are fueled by obesity rates that have increased in adults by 75 percent in the last 10 years, and that have doubled in children and tripled in teens in the last 20 years.

“This type of comprehensive legislation is exactly what states should be doing to reverse the obesity epidemic,” said Margo Wootan, CSPI’s director of nutrition policy. “The Maine legislation will make it easier for people to eat well, be physically active, and maintain a healthy weight. Maine’s figured out that doing nothing about obesity is a prohibitively expensive option.”

The Maine legislation is the first in the country that would require large chain restaurants to list nutrition information on menus and menu boards. The bill would only apply to chain restaurants with 20 or more outlets in the U.S. Fast-food restaurants that use menu boards would be required to list calorie counts along with the item and price, and to list expanded nutrition information on the packaging for standard menu items. Table-service chain restaurants with printed menus would be required to list calories, saturated fat, sodium, and other nutrition facts for standard menu items.

“Nutrition information in chain restaurants is notoriously hard to find and hard to read,” Wootan said. “Without calorie labeling, consumers would have no clue that a large McDonald’s shake has more than 1,000 calories—about a half a day’s worth just in a drink. With labeling, consumers would be free to make educated choices, and restaurants might be inclined to reformulate and improve the nutritional quality of their foods.”

The nutritional content of menu items varies wildly, according to CSPI, and even professional dietitians often underestimate the calories and fat in restaurant meals. Most Starbucks patrons would probably be shocked to find that a Coconut Crème Frappuccino packs 870 calories and a day’s worth of saturated fat in a 20-ounce venti.

The Maine legislation also would allow the state to use revenue from its gas tax, currently earmarked for highways, to pay for bike paths, walking trails, pedestrian bridges, and safe routes for walking and biking to school. Florida, Texas, and California have also enacted transportation policies that would encourage walking and other forms of physical activity.

Another bill in the Maine package would prohibit the sale in schools of chewing gum, candy bars, food or drinks containing 35 percent or more sugar or other sweeteners, juices with less than 100 percent juice, and any foods with more than eight grams of fat per one-ounce serving. A growing number of communities and school districts, including the Los Angeles Unified School District, have eliminated soda from school vending machines. Other school districts, facing budget gaps, have entered into exclusive pouring rights contracts with soda companies to help raise revenue.

“While it’s easy to sympathize with cash-strapped school districts, budget gaps shouldn’t be bridged at the expense of children’s health,” Wootan said. “We shouldn’t send mixed messages to kids by teaching one thing in the classroom and another in the cafeteria. Besides, communities have already shown that you can replace unhealthful foods with healthful foods in school vending machines and not lose revenue.”

Other states are also beginning to file similar anti-obesity measures, including a restaurant-labeling bill in New York state, and a public-school soda ban in California.