AUGUSTA, Maine — Gov. John Baldacci ceremonially signed three bills on Wednesday to help Mainers count calories while dining out and to improve the state’s monitoring of childhood obesity.
Public health advocates said the measures — including a menu-labeling requirement for chain restaurants — are small but important steps that could reverse Maine’s childhood obesity rate, which is ranked the highest in New England.
Roughly two-thirds of Mainers are either overweight or clinically obese, with obesity rates in the state rising from 12 percent of residents in 1990 to 26 percent in 2006. Additionally, roughly 24 percent of Maine children are considered obese, according to a 2008 report by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation.
“I think these three bills together are a form of preventative medicine,” said Rep. Helen Rankin, a Hiram Democrat who spent nearly 50 years working in school kitchens or as a director of food service for schools.
The most controversial bill, LD 1259, will require chain restaurants operating in Maine to post caloric content information for food and drinks on either the menu or a menu board. The new law takes effect in February 2011.
Such information is already available online for many restaurants. But bill supporters predicted that the new law, which is modeled after one already in place in New York City and several other major metropolitan areas, will enable consumers to make more informed decisions on the spot.
“States like Maine taking action are forcing the fast food industry to come to the table and say, ‘OK, it’s coming. Even the state of Maine is doing this,’” said House Speaker Hannah Pingree, D-North Haven, the bill’s lead sponsor.
Representatives of Maine’s restaurant industry and other critics have called the bill a “feel-good measure” that will drive up business costs while having little impact since Mainers eat the vast majority of their meals at home. They also pointed out that the amount of calories for an item can change dramatically with the addition of condiments, which would not be included on the menu labels.
The other two bills seek to address obesity through the schools.
LD 319, sponsored by Rankin, would encourage schools to collect body mass index measurements for students. The general data — stripped of names or other identifying information — will then help the schools and the state track obesity rates as well as the success or failure of anti-obesity programs.
The third bill, LD 1407, assesses physical education capacities at schools and encourages more schools to expand their physical education offerings. It also sets up a special fund to help implement additional physical education programs in schools but only allocates $500 to the fund initially. The fund can receive donations from public or private sources.
Bill sponsor Rep. Seth Berry, D-Bowdoinham, said the importance of physical education in schools was driven home to him recently when his young son told him his favorite part of the day had been gym class.
“What made it bittersweet was that it was the only day of the week that he had gym,” Berry said at the bill signing ceremony.
Speaking afterward, Dr. Joel Kase, president of the Maine Osteopathic Association, said there are likely a combination of reasons why Maine has a higher obesity rate than its neighboring states. Mainers, on average, earn less and have less formal education — two factors directly tied to obesity, said Kase, who also is the director of medical education at the University of New England College of Osteopathic Medicine.
Children also are much less likely to walk to school today than several decades ago. They are much more likely to spend time on the computer, play video games and have a television in their room, he said.