Shaking off the Sugar | The Bronx Free Press 

NYC bans sugary drinks from kids’ meals
By Gregg McQueen  |

Down the drain.

The New York City Council has voted to ban restaurants from including sugary drinks in children’s meal menus.

The bill, known as Intro 1064, passed on March 28th and will require eateries to serve water, low-fat or nonfat milk, or 100 percent fruit juices with children’s meals, eliminating soda and other sugar-saturated drinks.

“This is going to have an impact on 24,000 restaurants across New York City that have children’s meals. It’s going to be the new normal,” said City Councilmember Ben Kallos, who sponsored the latest version of the bill.

Restaurants can still serve sodas or other drinks to children if requested by customers, but businesses caught including the sweetened beverages on menus are subject to a civil penalty up to $200.

The law will go into effect in one year, and will be enforced by the Health Department.

Dr. Vanessa Salcedo, Director of Community Health and a practicing pediatrician at Union Community Health Center (UCHC) in the Bronx, said the legislation signaled a major victory in the fight against childhood obesity and health issues, noting that sugary beverages are the number one additive of sugar to a young person’s diet.

“It’s not cookies, not candy,” she said. “A lot of parents are unaware of that. This new bill really reinforces our message that these drinks are bad for you.”

Salcedo said that many parents give their children fruit juices thinking that they are healthier than soda, while in reality, the juice drinks contain loads of added sugar.

“Parents think they’re doing the right thing, but they don’t realize how much sugar is in many of these juices,” she stated.

According to the city’s Health Department, one of five children enter kindergarten obese, and more than half of all adults in New York City are overweight or obese.

The legislation has received the backing of the American Beverage Association (ABA).

A companion bill has been introduced in the New York State legislature.

Though the bill was first introduced by former Councilmember Leroy Comrie in 2011, the concept of curtailing sugary drinks took a while to gain momentum.

Salcedo attributed much of the acceptance to an abundance of research linking sugary beverages to diabetes and heart disease. “The evidence is there – there’s no debate about it anymore,” said Salcedo, who testified at a Council hearing in favor of the bill.

“We’ve really seen a change in culture where people are a lot more accepting,” Kallos said. “We’ve seen private industry start to adopt this.”

In 2013, McDonalds removed soda from the Happy Meals section of its menu board. As of November 2017, more than half of Happy Meals served in the U.S. included water, milk or juice instead of soda.

“That’s a big deal,” remarked Kallos, who said the bill should be low-impact for New York City restaurants, which simply need to update their menus to reflect removal of the sugary sips. He said the city should easily be able to enforce the bill.

“In terms of enforcement, it’s just a matter of walking into a restaurant and looking at the menu,” he said.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), children in the U.S. currently drink enough sugar per year to fill a bathtub.

“It’s really frustrating as a pediatrician to routinely see these kids with health problems due to sugary beverages,” said Salcedo, who noted that the Bronx has the highest rates of diabetes and heart disease in the city.

She explained that she has met child patients who began drinking soda at six months old.

“I had to send a 10-year-old for a liver biopsy. We see teens and middle schoolers who are diabetic or pre-diabetic,” she remarked. “We have no way to fight it except for behavior change.”

On March 25, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) and the American Heart Association (AHA) issued a joint policy statement endorsing a range of public health measures, including excise taxes, limits on marketing to children, and financial incentives for purchasing healthier beverages – all designed to reduce children’s consumption of sugary drinks.

“Over the past decade, the American Heart Association has been advocating for this and other policies that will help to reduce the consumption of added sugars, especially by NYC’s youth. As our mission states, we aim to be a relentless force for a world of longer, healthier lives. Thoughtful strategies like this, that establish healthy beverage choices as the simpler option for families, are vital to the effort to improve heart and brain health in the city,” said Robin Vitale, the AHA’s Vice President for Health Strategies.

The policy statement pointed out locales that had increased taxes on sugary beverages, such as Chile. Sugary drink purchases there decreased 21 percent in the year after the tax was implemented. Since becoming the first U.S. city to implement a sugary drink tax in 2015, Berkeley, Californina has seen a 9.6 percent decline in the sales of those beverages.

“The sugar tax does work – is New York City next or New York State next? We hope so, as these are policies that have worked elsewhere,” said Salcedo, who has been a crusader against sugary beverages for several years.

At UCHC, Salcedo spearheaded the creation of the Healthy Beverage Zone (HBZ) program, which eradicated sugar-sweetened beverages from the center’s Bronx locations. The advocacy led to extensive buy-in from patients and staff, and the program has now been expanded across the Bronx.

“We currently have over 60 organizations that are partners in this,” Salcedo said.

“We’re working on a grassroots level to implement these changes. The little bit that we can do in terms of hospitals and schools and community-based organizations, to get them to realize other food options, is important.”

For more information on the Healthy Beverage Zone initiative, please visit