Buying a bag of potato chips could soon help Maryland children get fit.
A group of Maryland lawmakers has proposed taxing certain snack foods to help fund the Maryland Combating Childhood Obesity Grant Program, which would provide grants for organizations fighting obesity, keeping children active and teaching them about healthy eating.
“Childhood obesity is a growing problem, not just in Maryland but across the United States,” said Delegate Jay Walker, a Prince George’s County Democrat who sponsored the bill to create the program.
Lack of exercise and consumption of unhealthy foods, like snack items, contribute to the problem, he said.
Opponents of the bill say they support efforts to fight childhood obesity—just not a 6 percent sales tax on specific snacks.
“There’s no such thing as a good food or bad food,” said Jim McCarthy, president of the Snack Food Association, an international trade association. “There are good diets and bad diets.”
House Bill 716 calls for creation of the Maryland Combating Childhood Obesity Grant Program. To help fund the program, the bill also imposes the state’s 6 percent sales tax on potato chips and sticks, corn chips, pretzels, cheese puffs and curls, pork rinds, extruded pretzels and chips, popped popcorn, nuts and edible seeds and specified snack mixtures.
The state taxed these snacks through retail sales from 1992 until 1997, when the General Assembly repealed the tax. The snacks have not been taxed in area grocery stores or vending machines since.
Fruits and vegetables purchased in grocery stores are not taxed in the state, but items like candy and ice cream sold in containers of less than one pint are.
As written, the bill calls for 40 percent of the sales tax generated annually to go to the fund. The remaining 60 percent would go to the state’s general fund.
But during a hearing last month before the House Health and Government Operations Committee, Walker said he would change the percentage to an overall dollar amount of about $10 million.
Walker said he also is willing to change some of the snacks up for the tax, including the nuts and edible seeds listing, as well as snack mixtures like trail mix.
“I’m not trying to treat the snack industry unfairly,” he said. “To do nothing is irresponsible.”
State Sen. Bill Ferguson (D-Balitmore), who sponsored a similar bill on the Senate side, agreed. Ferguson, who taught U.S. history and government in a Baltimore City high school, recalled mornings when students ate four bags of chips for breakfast.
“How is a child supposed to learn when that’s a daily nutrition staple for them?” he asked. “Essentially, we subsidize snack food in Maryland.”
Still, potato chips are not the enemy, many food retailers say.
Potato chips have both Vitamin C and potassium, said McCarthy. “It’s become popular for legislators to quickly identify something they deem as unhealthy without really looking into it,” he said.
During the Feb. 22 House hearing, McCarthy questioned why certain snacks were identified for the tax and not other high-end snacks like brie cheese and foie gras.
“We don’t support singling out any kinds of foods for taxation,” he said.
According to First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Campaign, childhood obesity rates have tripled in the United States over the past three decades. The campaign started in 2010 to solve childhood obesity within a generation.
In Maryland, almost 30 percent of Maryland children ages 10 to 17 are overweight, according to a study published last year in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. About 13 percent are obese. That’s compared to 32 percent and more than 16 percent nationwide.
The study defines overweight as having a body mass index above the 85th percentile for a child’s age and sex, while obese is having a body mass index above the 95th percentile.
Children who are overweight and obese are at higher risk for heart disease, Type 2 diabetes, asthma and sleep apnea.
There are many programs throughout the state that can fight these statistics, said Jon Kaplan, executive director of Baltimore Fitness Academy, a nonprofit organization that educates and mentors urban teens and young adults in health, fitness and nutrition. They just need funding to do it, he said.
Kaplan supports the grant program, as well as the tax that goes with it.
“Given the fact that we used to have a snack tax, I am in favor of it,” he said. “I feel we need to do something to help with our statewide budget deficit, and this is a way that can help.”
If passed, the bill also gives Kaplan’s academy a chance to apply for additional funding and to reach more children.
The academy, also known as BMoreFit, helps participants become certified fitness professionals. The goal is for the participants to return to their communities and fight childhood obesity.
Kenneth Smith is one of BMoreFit’s early success stories. The formerly 250-plus pound teen once drank soda, ate fast food and did no exercise.
After spending six weeks with BMoreFit, Smith cut out soda, began exercising five days a week and lost almost 50 pounds. Two years later, he is a certified fitness instructor and exercises several times a week. And he still skips the soda.
Smith said programs like BMoreFit can make a difference in people’s lives, making them happier and healthier.
“The type of people you have coming in [to the program], they motivate you,” he said. “Some of us were hard headed a little bit. But they kept us in the right direction.”
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recommend children and teens do an hour or more of physical activity each day. In Maryland, physical education is only required for one semester in middle school and one semester in high school, Kaplan said.
“That bothers me a lot,” he said. “For the most part, kids don’t get the opportunity to move.”
The Maryland Out of School Time Network, an organization that helps young people access safe activities in non-school hours, recently surveyed after-school providers about the programming they offer related to physical activity.
About 85 percent offer more than 30 minutes of physical activity per week. About 40 percent offer more than two hours a week.
“As a result of schools having limited their recreation and physical education programs over the years, there really is not enough time that kids are outside and physically active,” said Ellie Mitchell, director of the Maryland Out of School Time Network. “We thought [the grant program] is a great way to create more resources for these programs and for kids.”
Supporters like Kaplan and Mitchell say there is a big contingency of people and physical education groups who would like the bill to pass. But the bill still has another committee to navigate before a vote is scheduled.
“I think we can put up a really good fight,” Mitchell said. “But I don’t think it can be easily won.”
To Walker, his bill is “common sense.” During the February House Health and Government Operations Committee hearing, Walker encouraged committee members to keep an open mind when considering the plan.
He also asked members to keep this question in mind: “How can I explain to our constituents how they can pay tax on a candy bar but they don’t pay tax on a bag of chips?”
For more information, visit http://mlis.state.md.us.