By Emily Le Coz
JACKSON, Mississippi (Reuters) - Mississippi, the state with the highest rate of obesity, has banned its cities and counties from trying to stop restaurants from selling super-sized soft drinks or requiring them to post nutritional information about meals.
The move came a week after a judge blocked an effort by New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to prohibit vending machines, movie theaters and retailers from selling single-serving sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces (473 ml), an effort that was intended to tackle the public health problems caused by rising rates of obesity.
Mississippi's new law, signed by Governor Phil Bryant on Monday, also prohibits municipalities from banning toys in fast-food meals, saying that only the state can regulate nutrition.
"It is simply not the role of government to micro-regulate citizens' dietary decisions," Bryant said in a statement after signing the measure. "The responsibility for one's personal health depends on individual choices about a proper diet and appropriate exercise."
Although no local regulations had been passed in the state, the law was seen as a preemptive measure against the type of ban that Bloomberg proposed before a court ruled it had too many loopholes and would be difficult to enforce.
Supporters of Mississippi's new law said food-and-beverage regulations should be made at the state level to eliminate confusion and save food businesses from having to navigate a patchwork of local laws.
"The key words are consistency and uniformity," said Mike Cashion, executive director of the Mississippi Hospitality and Restaurant Association, which has been one of the law's strongest advocates.
Mississippi has the highest rate of obesity of any U.S. state, with 34.9 percent of its residents weighing in at 30 pounds or more above their ideal weight, according to data from the U.S. Centers for Disease Control. It is unlikely the state will tackle its obesity problem through food regulations, said Sandra Shelson, executive director of the Partnership for a Healthy Mississippi.
She noted that Mississippi has no statewide regulations on smoking in public places, though several dozen local municipalities have passed such laws.
"It's never a good idea to take away the control of some of the local governments," Shelson said. "If you have a community that wants to make itself healthier, the state shouldn't be in the business of trying to preclude it from making changes that'd result in making it a healthier place."
(Editing by Scott Malone and Steve Orlofsdky)