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Protecting teens or expanding a 'nanny state'?

Proposals that would bar California high school students from buying Gatorade on campus, ban metal bats from their baseball games and require them to wear helmets while skiing are drawing criticism.

May 07, 2010|By Patrick McGreevy, Los Angeles Times

Reporting from Sacramento — Barring high school students from buying Gatorade on campus, banning metal bats from their baseball games, making it illegal for adolescents to have themselves "branded" with a hot iron: Regulating teenage behavior has become an attractive topic for California's legislators.

Some lawmakers also want to outlaw nipple piercings for teenagers, and prohibit them from snowboarding and skiing without a helmet or reentering a football game too quickly after taking a hard hit to the head.

The proposals have riled those who complain that California is already an intrusive "nanny state," and they're asking whether lawmakers should find better ways to spend their time than pondering how to keep teens in check — like dealing with high unemployment or resolving the budget crisis.

"This is a nanny state that tells you what you can eat, what you can drink, what you have to wear during your outdoor recreation," said state Sen. Tony Strickland (R-Thousand Oaks). "I believe it's the parents' responsibility to decide what is best for their children. It is arrogance having government officials telling you, 'You're not smart enough, so we're going to tell you what is right and wrong for you.' "

Some teenagers also think state lawmakers are going too far. "It's like they are trying to control our lives for us," said Eddie Muro, the 17-year-old senior class president at Big Bear High School. "If a kid is 17, he can sign up for the Marines to fight for his country, but people are deciding what he can drink at school? It's ridiculous."

With budget crises blocking new spending programs and entrenched interests ready to fight proposals that regulate adult behavior, teens have become a ready target for the legislators' desire to address problems that distress their constituents.

Supporters of the bills have some influential voices on their side. Among them is TV talk show host Dr. Phil McGraw, who recently told his national audience that he supports the California proposal to require helmets for snowboarding kids.

The reasoning ability of teenagers is not fully developed, McGraw said, and they don't always make good decisions: "We have to protect these kids from themselves."

State Sen. Alex Padilla (D-Pacoima) is the author of SB 1255, which would ban the on-campus sale of Gatorade and other sugary sports drinks during school hours but allow them at practices and games. He cited studies indicating that many teenagers are switching from sugary sodas, which have already been banned from campuses, to electrolyte-replacement drinks, which can be high in sugar and sodium and can make kids fat.

"Childhood obesity has become an epidemic," Padilla told his colleagues during a hearing on the bill. "What we are going after here is the source of all that sugar."

The proposal is sponsored by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a fitness advocate. It is backed by the California Teachers Assn.

But Kent Mercer, the head athletic trainer at De La Salle High School in Concord, says the ban goes too far. Sports drinks help students perform better in the classroom as well as on the field, he testified at the hearing, and teens should be able to make informed choices after being educated about the drinks and nutrition.

"They need to have that understanding of the role it plays, as opposed to just not having that option at schools and being limited to fruit drinks with high levels of fruit sugars," Mercer said.

Chanel Maldonado, a student at El Camino Real High School in Woodland Hills, said she and her friends buy Gatorade from a campus vending machine after playing basketball at lunch. If the state outlaws it, "we're just going to buy it somewhere else and bring it to school," she said.

The full Senate could vote on the bill as early as Monday. The other measures are expected to be voted on in coming weeks.

A Senate committee on Wednesday recommended a three-year moratorium on the use of metal bats in high school baseball. Assemblyman Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) introduced the measure, AB 7 after a 16-year-old student at Marin Catholic High School was badly injured when a line drive from a metal bat struck him in the head.

"It's time to seriously consider the safety of allowing kids to use performance-enhancing metal bats with the pitcher standing just 60 feet away with virtually no protection," Huffman said before the Senate Education Committee passed the measure on a 3-1 vote.

Sen. Bob Huff (R-Diamond Bar) opposed the bill, saying it is unwarranted meddling by lawmakers in a sport already regulated by a regional federation.

"You have more injuries from fielding, running the bases, than you do from this, and so that begs the question: At what point are we as the Legislature going to step in to [regulate] team sports? Where do we stop?" Huff asked.

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