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Vending-machine bill fizzles on Hill

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Members of a legislative panel agree something really ought to be done about controlling vending machines in public schools, but they're not about to support a bill to do it.

They considered writing a letter to schools and community councils, carefully stating the Education Interim Committee's concerns and its belief that heavily caffeinated sodas and the heavy marketing associated with them should be kept out of the machines.

But the committee decided even that would be overstepping its bounds and adjourned its meeting Wednesday without acting on a motion to draft the letter.

School administrators should be wary of how much marketing is allowed to go in school, no matter how much supplemental income it provides, especially among a captive audience of students who probably get too much junk food anyway, lawmakers said.

But committee members, in debating a bill that would regulate school vending machines, also agreed that what a school chooses to sell is a school's business, no matter how much the state wants to get involved.

"This is the fourth bill out of eight that would add some kind of control over the local schools," said Sen. Chris Buttars, R-West Jordan. "I agree with the discussion, but none of these things that have come before us are our business."

Vending machines may not be its business, but one recently caught the attention of the committee's co-chairman, Sen. Howard Stephenson, R-Draper, who said he was "shocked" to see "a huge vending machine with a Surge can on the front" at an Alpine School District junior high.

Surge is advertised as "a big upper to youth and is a mini gateway drug" because it promotes the notion of getting high, Stephenson said. "It's one thing to sell empty calories, but I wonder how this decision was made."

HB228 would help answer that question, said sponsor Rep. Pat Jones, D-Cottonwood Heights. It would standardize terms for placing vending machines and the contracts with vendors. Exactly what companies are paying and receiving would be public and shared with other schools, she said.

"Much of the decision for drink machines revolves around lucrative contracts," Jones said. "But at what point are we as concerned about our children's health."

Parent Carolyn Wright said she supports the bill because it would clarify the process as well as give local councils moral support in dealing with vendors.

She said Jolt cola, a drink with twice the caffeine of regular cola, showed up recently in a Salt Lake middle school. "I don't want the students and certainly not the teachers drinking that. It does not create a healthy climate," Wright said. "We told them if they didn't get that out of the machine, all the machines were coming out."

Stephenson said lawmakers aren't anti-soft drink company or anti-vending machines, which supply needed additional money to make up for fee waivers and in many schools pay for basic needs such as copiers.

"Vending machines are important in a state that spends less per child than any other," he said.

Rep. Lorraine Pace, R-Logan, said the school community councils are made up of parents "who we can assume care about children's health. I'm not inclined to even send a letter. I never even heard of Surge or Jolt until today."

E-mail: jthalman@desnews.com