Baltimore is One Step Closer to Passing Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Legislation
Last week, I had the honor of joining a coalition of health advocates, parents and community leaders at Baltimore City Hall for the Health Committee hearing on legislation that would require warning labels for sugar-sweetened beverages (SSBs) on advertisements, menus, and points-of-purchase within the city’s jurisdiction. The warning label is intended to help Baltimore residents make more informed decisions, reduce caloric intake, encourage a healthier diet, and improve overall health. Baltimore would become the second jurisdiction in the country and the first on the East Coast to require warning labels.
The evidence that sugar-sweetened beverages contribute to obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay is overwhelming. As an emergency physician, I have seen young children suffer from the same conditions traditionally only seen in adults, such as type 2 diabetes and hypertension. One in three Baltimore school-aged children are obese or overweight and not coincidentally one in four of these children are drinking a soda every day. Unfortunately, parents are often unaware of the dangerous health consequences that these beverages can have for their children.
A study published by Tufts University last year estimated that SSBs cause more than 180,000 deaths per year worldwide. Pediatrics also published a study this month that showed how music celebrities who are popular among adolescents are frequently used to endorse unhealthy food and beverages. It is known that exposure to unhealthy food and beverage advertisements are associated with excessive consumption. Studies also show that advertisements for SSBs are disproportionately marketed to lower-income neighborhoods communities of color.
Among the supporters for the bill at the hearing was father, teacher, and coach William Marbury, who refused to support the predatory marketing and deceptive practices of the sugar-sweetened beverage companies. He said that he often sees his own children targeted by these advertisements. He emphasized that beverage companies make an entire line of products, including healthier choices, and that placing a warning label directed towards SSBs is reasonable.
At the press conference before the hearing, I had the honor of introducing U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings, who called the legislation a simple and modest proposal. He believes that it is our duty to make sure children and parents are educated about the health effects of sugary drink consumption. Councilman Nick Mosby reiterated that this legislation is not an attack on self-determination or business, but a means of addressing preventable life-threatening diseases.
Antoine Dow, a local Baltimore grocery store owner, also testified in support of the warning label bill. In his testimony, he said that he was motivated to speak up because obesity is rampant in his community. As a storeowner, he has already taken steps to provide healthier menu options in his deli and grocery store, but he believes that there is more that we can do. As a business owner in Baltimore, he believes that it is his responsibility to stand up for health in his community. He predicts that in just a few years, warning labels will be the norm.
At the Baltimore City Health Department, we see sugary drinks as a health issue and a justice issue. Baltimore has always been a leader in public health and it is our duty to inform residents about the dangers of sugar-sweetened beverages. We can set an example for the state and the nation. This bill can help us fight an epidemic.
At the end of the hearing, the Health Committee decided to take the proposed legislation to a work session, which will allow them to make amendments to the bill before consideration before the full committee. Subsequently, after amendments have been applied, the committee will vote for the bill to be reviewed by the entire City Council in the near future.
I want to thank everyone who attended the hearing on Tuesday and added your voice to our conversation; it was an inspiring and powerful expression of community unity on this issue of health and justice!
As a reminder, if anyone is looking for a replacement for their favorite sugary drinks, you can check out SwitchTheDrink or the BetterBeverageFinder. You can also help by asking our elected leaders to approve warning labels for sugary drinks.
Dr. Leana S. Wen is the Health Commissioner of Baltimore City. Follow @BMore_Healthy and @DrLeanaWen.