A move to regulate drinks for kids clears state Senate

A move to regulate drinks for kids clears state Senate
SB 6455 would restrict what default beverages a restaurant can put on its menu for kids. The debate over the proposal includes cherry-picked pediatric recommendations and consternation over legislative overreach. Photo: freepik.com

The Feb. 13 Senate floor debate over a bill restricting what default beverages a restaurant can offer on its kids’ menu transformed into a debate over cherry-picked recommendations for kids and regulatory overreach by the state legislature, with one legislator calling it “one of the worst bills that I’ve seen in the legislative body…we’re telling everybody how to live their lives.”

State senators voted 25-22 in favor of SB 6455 sponsored by Majority Floor Leader Marko Liias (D-25) which would restrict the default beverages offered on kids’ menus to water, unflavored milk and nondairy alternatives.

Advocates such as Liias argue the bill would have restaurant default beverages follow guidelines set by the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Heart Association (AHA) that children should not consume more than 25 grams of sugar per day.

Those who disagree with the approach say the legislation lacks coherence and consistency by allowing plant-based milk alternatives but leaving out chocolate milk. Not only is low-fat chocolate milk allowed in public schools after a rollback by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), but a 2015 AAP paper advised that “a beverage such as flavored milk provides a good example of the balance needed to limit added sugars and yet promote nutrient-rich foods.”

And yet, an amendment sponsored by Sen. Ron Muzzall (R-10) to incorporate chocolate milk into the bill failed, with Liias saying: “while it may be a healthier choice than a Mountain Dew or some other choice, it is still exceeding the (daily sugar consumption) recommendation.”

However, Washington State Dairy Federation Executive Director Dan Wood told Lens there’s “not really a scientific basis to make a distinction for the purpose of this bill. Some of the plant-based alternatives to milk have more added sugar than chocolate milk.”

What’s more, the AAP cautions that most plant-based alternatives are not “nutritionally equivalent to cow’s milk,” while other pediatricians advise that “most plant-based milks are not nutritionally-equivalent to cow’s milk and may be lacking in important nutrients such as protein, vitamin D, and calcium.”

A similar effort to deal with the restrictions was made via an amendment by Sen. Steve O’Ban (R-28) to allow 100 percent apple juice on the default kids menu.

“I must confess I’m not a fan of the bill,” said Sen. Mike Padden (R-4), commenting on the proposal. “But if we’re going to do this, I’d like to broaden it a little bit so we can include things such as apple juice which is produced in our state and tastes awfully good with a meal.”

However, O’Ban’s amendment was also rejected (though senators later that same day approved a bill authorizing a special license plate celebrating Washington-grown apples).

O’Ban said the bill is “a little bit too prescriptive. It’s the state telling parents what they should and shouldn’t think is the right beverage for their child.”

Sen. Tim Sheldon (D-35) noted: “this is my 30th year in the legislature, and this bill really says it all about being a legislator. I just can’t wait to get home and field the questions from my constituents on ‘How did I vote on the default beverage bill?’”

Liias sought to downplay the bill’s scope, stating: “a parent can always order…whatever they want to order for their children. This bill doesn’t infringe on that freedom of families to choose what’s right for their kids.”

Washington Policy Center Government Reform Director Jason Mercier disagrees. “Why just limit it (the bill) to restaurants? Why shouldn’t we have to submit our grocery lists to make sure we’re buying appropriate food for our families?”

Referencing the failure of a title-only reform bill to clear its committee before the legislative cutoff date, he observed: “you demonstrate your priorities by where you spend your time.”

SB 6455 has been referred to the House Local Government Committee.

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