July 1st, 2011

Local Laws Fighting Fat Under Siege

The New York Times

Several state legislatures are passing laws that prohibit municipalities and other local governments from adopting regulations aimed at curbing rising obesity and improving public health, such as requiring restaurants to provide nutritional information on menus or to eliminate trans fats from the foods they serve.

In some cases, lawmakers are responding to complaints from business owners who are weary of playing whack-a-mole with varying regulations from one city to the next. Legislators have decided to sponsor state laws to designate authority for the rules that individual restaurants have to live by.

Florida and Alabama recently adopted such limits, while Georgia, Tennessee and Utah have older statutes on their books. Earlier this year, Arizona prohibited local governments from forbidding the marketing of fast food using “consumer incentives” like toys.

And this week, Ohio Gov. John Kasich signed the state budget, which contains sweeping limitations on local government control over restaurants.

“All of sudden we’re seeing this legislation get slipped into pending bills at the 11th hour under the radar of public health advocates, which will pre-empt local governments from adopting policies that would improve health in their communities,” said Samantha Graff, senior staff lawyer at Public Health Law & Policy, a nonprofit group that works to combat obesity, among other issues.

The new state laws will have no effect on a federal law that requires menu labeling by chains with 20 or more restaurants by 2013. But more than half of the nation’s restaurants will not be required to meet the federal rules for listing calories and fat content.

Sue Hensley, a spokeswoman for the National Restaurant Association, said it supported the efforts of its state members to protect restaurants from what she described as “a patchwork of regulation.”

“We feel it is in the best interests of the consumer to have one uniform standard,” Ms. Hensley said.

Public health advocates worry that the new laws will stall a movement among cities and counties that are putting in place a wide range of policies and tools aimed at stemming the rising tide of obesity among their residents. The mayor of Oklahoma City, Mick Cornett, for example, has challenged its citizens to lose a million pounds collectively, and cities around the country have worked to ensure that more nutritious meals are served at schools.

Towns and cities like Louisville, Ky., often serve as laboratories where new policies can be tested and tweaked, to develop public support that then unfolds across states and even nationally. The federal law passed last December that will set nutritional standards for food sold or otherwise provided in schools nationally is one example: Requirements for healthier foods in school cafeterias began in local school districts.

“This battle will involve policy changes at all levels of government, but it is easier fought locally because it allows greater accountability to ensure implementation and addresses the unique needs of communities,” William H. Roach Jr., chairman of the American Heart Association, wrote in an e-mail.

Read more:  http://www.nytimes.com/2011/07/01/business/01obese.html?_r=2&smid=tw-nytimeshealth&seid=auto

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