- 03/19/2013 by KIM SEVERSON (NY Times)
The Mississippi Legislature wants to be the sole government body that controls its buffets, barbecue and sweet tea.
Thanks to state legislators, Mississippians will most likely remain free to drink any size of Coke they want.
To that end, the people who govern the state with the highest rate of obesity in the nation have passed a bill saying that any law that might restrict what Mississippians eat or drink has to go through them — barring federal regulations.
That means that cities or counties cannot enact rules limiting soda size, salt content, shortening in cookies, toys in fast-food meals for children, how a menu is written or just about any other aspect of the daily dining experience in Mississippi.
The bill, which is on the desk of Gov. Phil Bryant and is likely to get a swift signature, is unique not only in its approach to managing the state’s diet but also in its timing.
Informally, legislators are calling it the anti-Bloomberg bill, a reference to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg of New York, whose attempt to limit the size of sugar-laced drinks was shot down by a state judge this week.
It is easy to view the new Mississippi law with an ironic eye. As Representative Omeria Scott, a Democrat, pointed out during the debate on the bill, “Mississippi is the fattest and most unhealthy state in the U.S.A.”
But the legislation is the latest and most sweeping expression of a nationwide battle in which some government officials, public health leaders and food supply reformers are pitted against those who would prefer the government quit trying to control what people eat.
“I can’t defend what the statistics show about obesity,” said Senator Tony Smith, the owner of Stonewall’s Barbecue in Picayune, Miss., who introduced the bill after being approached by the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association. “But this is about personal responsibility. When I go out to eat with my three daughters they get waters. I don’t need the government to tell me to do that.”
Also signing on to the bill were associations that represent sellers of soft drinks and owners of convenience stores, as well as the farm bureau and the Mississippi Poultry Association.
The Food and Drug Administration is working on a new national menu labeling law that would require calorie counts on restaurant menus, vending machines and products from other retailers that sell prepared food.
The law was approved in 2010 but has proved difficult to actually implement. Dr. Margaret A. Hamburg, the F.D.A. commissioner, said in a recent interview with The Associated Press that writing a new menu labeling law “has gotten extremely thorny.”
Some states are saying that is plenty of regulation, and have designed laws to prevent more. Ohio passed a bill similar to Mississippi’s in 2011 after toys in fast-food meals were banned in San Francisco and Santa Clara County and Los Angeles restricted the sale of fast food in specific neighborhoods.
States including Florida, Arizona and Alabama have similarly restricted local governments from regulating the restaurant industry.
But Mississippi’s law appears to be the broadest in scope. Cities and counties cannot limit portion sizes or require calorie counts on menus or restrict the sale of food based on how it was grown, which would protect food made with genetically modified grain, a growing concern among some consumers, as well as the way livestock is raised.
Similarly, only the state can control zoning laws that would restrict some restaurants and favor others or mandate labeling of seeds that would force what proponents of the bill call “an organic agenda.”
Mike Cashion, the director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, said the point of the bill was to avoid having a patchwork of regulations that would be difficult to enforce and put a burden on small-business owners.
“We see the writing on the wall with what’s happened in other parts of the country and we want to make sure we stay one step ahead of the process,” he said.
Still, discussion as the bill made its way through the Legislature was often more about food and health than concerns over regulations.
In its government blog, The Clarion-Ledger of Jackson recorded this exchange between lawmakers:
“We’ve got an obesity problem in the state of Mississippi, haven’t we? Of major proportions. Childhood obesity especially. Do you think that immoderate use of a Coca-Cola is good for a man?” asked Representative Steve Holland, a Democrat who voted for the bill.
“I don’t see where it would kill him,” answered Representative Gregory Holloway, a Democrat who fought for the bill by arguing that “if you want to go eat 20 Big Macs, you can eat 20 Big Macs.”
“All right, what about the excessive use of a Coca-Cola? If you drink 10, 15 a day?” Mr. Holland countered.
“Probably would have some effect on your kidneys,” Mr. Holloway answered.
“Dang sure would,” said Mr. Holland.