Democratic state legislators in Maine this week are introducing the nation’s “first comprehensive legislative package to combat obesity.”
The bill would require nutrition labeling on menus in large chain restaurants, ban soft drinks and junk food in schools, promote transportation policies that encourage walking and create a commission to study the causes of obesity.
“This is the pervasive nanny culture, and it’s sending the wrong message,” said Rick Berman, executive director of the Center for Consumer Freedom.
The proper message, Mr. Berman said, is “moderation” in eating. Instead, he said, those promoting Maine’s anti-obesity legislative proposal “are setting up the forbidden-fruit syndrome.”
But state Rep. Sean Faircloth, Bangor Democrat, a sponsor of the bill, said, “This isn’t about having another bag of Fritos.” He said it’s about not getting life-threatening disorders such as heart disease, stroke and diabetes by knowing about what you eat.
“Nobody’s telling you can’t have a quarter-pounder. But you’ll get caloric information with your quarter-pounder. This is a free-market approach to obesity and public health,” Mr. Faircloth said in a telephone interview.
He also said the Maine Medical Association supports his anti-obesity package.
Maine state Sen. Lynn Bromley, South PortlandDemocrat , also a sponsor of the measure, said, “If you give people information, they make the right choices.”
Ms. Bromley said she thinks the bill “has a good chance to get through” the Democrat-controlled Legislature.
“The issue goes directly to the cost of health care,” she said yesterday in a telephone interview. “Maine has a biennial budget of $5 billion, and we have a huge looming deficit of $1 billion. … We estimate the obesity issue in Maine accounts for [costs] of $1 billion.”
Ms. Bromley, who chairs Maine’s state Senate Committee on Business Research and Economic Development, and Mr. Faircloth will be announcing introduction of the new measure at a news briefing today at the Statehouse in Augusta.
Also expected to be on hand to back the bill will be Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest. The center has worked to expose the fat and calorie content of fast food, movie popcorn and ethnic dishes, such as Chinese and Mexican food.
Ms. Wootan said Mr. Faircloth sought out advice from officials of CSPI and “a number of experts” as to what the anti-obesity package should contain.
“Over the last couple of years, CSPI has done research on contributors to obesity and policy options to address” the problem that public health leaders call an “epidemic” in America, she said yesterday.
Ms. Wootan said the five-bill package will require chain restaurants having 20 or more establishments nationally to post the calorie content of all foods.
“This would not apply to ‘mom and pop’ restaurants,” she said.
As for the restrictions on soft drinks and snack food in schools, she said Maine’s bill is modeled after a West Virginia law. Ms. Wootan said it would prohibit candy and soft drinks with sugar from vending machines.
Ms. Wootan said snack food would be limited to items that do not contain more than 35 percent sugar or 8 grams of fat per serving. Fruit juice would be allowed, provided it contained nothing but juice.
The restrictions are confusing to Mr. Berman.
“They would ban soft drinks, but there is as much sugar in fruit juice as in soft drinks. Orange juice is loaded with sugar,” he said.
And the creation of a commission to study the causes of obesity is unnecessary, Mr. Berman said, because the bill’s sponsors already have determined causes and cures.