Proposed legislation to remove junk food and sugar-loaded drinks from vending machines at California state office buildings and on government property is intensifying debate about when the battle against obesity becomes a gateway to “nanny state” tactics.
Backers of the Assembly bill, AB 459, said California shouldn’t condone the sale of fatty snacks and sodas in the workplace when taxpayers are already shelling out vast amounts to cover the healthcare costs of overweight government employees.
Opponents, however, liken the bill to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s ban on large, sugary drinks, an attempt that a state court there struck down in March. Legislators, they said, shouldn’t meddle in consumers’ food and beverage choices.
On Wednesday, the bill — written by Assembly member Holly Mitchell (D-Los Angeles) — is set to go before the state Committee on Appropriations.
The proposal would require half of the food in vending machines on state grounds to meet nutritional guidelines by the start of 2015. By the next year, the mandated percentage would rise to 75%, growing to 100% by 2017. The requirements would apply to all vended beverages starting in 2016.
The regulations would ban options such as Doritos chips and Coca-Cola soda. Permitted products would include water, milk with 2% fat or less, 100% fruit or vegetable juice and snacks with fewer than 200 calories and 230 milligrams of sodium per serving.
“Everyone remains free to purchase off-site and bring on-site whatever they want to consume, but the state will stop providing profiteers venues to sell unhealthy items to its workforce,” Mitchell said in an email.
Existing policies in Los Angeles, Sacramento and at least a dozen other California municipalities already require vending machines on government property to set aside space for nutritious foods, Mitchell said. In 2010, an executive order from then-San Francisco Mayor Gavin Newsom banned sugary drinks from city vending machines.
Such measures protect more than just the health of public employees, said Harold Goldstein, executive director of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy, which backs AB 459.
“We’re in the middle of a very costly obesity epidemic,” he said. “It is unreasonable to expect California taxpayers to be footing the bill for skyrocketing healthcare costs for workers who end up with diabetes and heart disease when the state itself is contributing to those problems.”
The California Public Employees’ Retirement System spends about $7 billion annually on medical care for 1.3 million state and local public employees, retirees and their families.
Nearly a quarter of CalPERS members have a chronic condition such as diabetes or congestive heart failure. In a 2011 survey, 47% reported being overweight, but only 13% said they were enrolled in a weight-loss program.
CalPERS officials said a 1% reduction in chronic conditions could save the agency $3.6 million a year.
The agency’s board eventually backed the bill. But some members remain skeptical.
“This may make a minor improvement in people’s health, but if they have to, people will smuggle in candy bars,” said CalPERS board member J.J. Jelincic. “I just think it’s the ultimate nanny bill. It’s idiotic.”
Since 2004, the calorie levels of drinks sold in school vending machines have declined 90% because of efforts to replace full-calorie soft drinks with water, milk, juice and diet beverages on campuses, said Chris Gindlesperger, a spokesman for the American Beverage Assn.
But for adult consumers, education and choice are key, he said, pointing to a program rolling out in Chicago that posts calorie counts on vending machines in municipal buildings. Brands such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi also have moved nutrition labels to the front of their bottles and cans to make consumers more informed, he said.
“There’s a better way,” he said of maintaining public health.
If AB 459 becomes law, many vending machine operators fear they’ll lose their livelihood.
Faced with machines that sell healthful options alongside junk food, consumers will opt for the Snickers bar more than 90% of the time, said Harry Begian, a delegate with the California Vendors Policy Committee. Often, vendors throw out half of the more nutritious food because the items reached their expiration dates, he said.
The group’s members have thousands of machines on government property, which could be little used if customers don’t like the available options, Begian said.
“You cannot force people to eat what they don’t want,” he said. “They will go outside and buy it there. This bill is going to put us out of business, because people won’t buy from us.”
But some noted that the vending industry relies on impulse purchases and that consumers committed to a spur-of-the-moment craving often settle for any option presented.
In 2003, before consumer interest in body-conscious cuisine reached its current heights, officials in Baldwin Park began setting up vending machines offering healthful snacks on city property.
In the first six months of the program, revenue from the city’s overall vending system plunged 30%, officials said. But by 2005, as patrons grew more accustomed to the offerings, sales made a full recovery.
If AB 459 succeeds, some Southland food providers and vending companies could also have much to gain.
Helping Unite Mankind and Nutrition Healthy Vending, a Los Angeles company, has placed more than 1,000 vending machines in 40 states, Canada and Puerto Rico. The machines sell only body-conscious goods, such as granola bars, vegetarian snacks, protein powders, organic juices and soy milk.
“The problem isn’t that there aren’t quality products on the market, it’s that it’s inconvenient for people to access them,” said Sean Kelly, 30, the company’s chief executive. “This bill is going to help change that. It’s a step in the right direction.”