Seeking to help the state's youngest students develop nutritious habits, Texas lawmakers on Tuesday approved banning the sale of sugary drinks in public elementary and junior high schools.
In a 24-6 vote, the Senate advanced a bill that would limit beverage choices to water, low-fat milk and pure juice. Its advocates emphasized the potential savings in health care costs.
"If we're ever going to make a difference in the huge budget, we need to start thinking about prevention," said Sen. Carlos Uresti, D- San Antonio, in an interview after the vote. "It's a small step, but I think it gets us there."
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Since smoking bans rippled across the country a decade ago, efforts to legislate American dietary habits have made unsteady progress. The new federal health care law requires some labeling on menus. Several states, starting with California in 2008, have restricted the use of trans fats in restaurants.
Dozens of states have banned sodas in school vending machines, to limited effect. Independent research has shown that students in those states tended to switch to sports drinks and other sugar-sweetened offerings. Bans on all sugar-sweetened beverages have succeeded in curtailing access at schools but not in reducing overall consumption, according to a report in the journal JAMA Pediatrics.
But efforts to expand the school soda vending bans have inspired a significant backlash, most famously New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's campaign against drinks larger than 16 ounces, which conservatives thinkers and late-night TV comics alike said had "nanny-state" implications. A court has blocked that proposal.
In Texas, Uresti has struggled to advance measures he describes as preventive health care. His proposal to raise the minimum age for tobacco purchases stalled in committee.
His sugary drink ban has already passed the House, with changes requested by the beverage industry. While the original bill applied to all public schools, the current version exempts high schools.
The bill will go to Gov. Rick Perry, whose office did not respond to a request for comment. It came up for a vote with just a day to spare before a legislative deadline. And it cleared the Senate two weeks after Coca-Cola announced a major anti-obesity initiative including juice drinks. Aides described the timing as beneficial.