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Soft drinks industry mulls voluntary school ban

29-Jul-2005

Coca-Cola, Pepsi and the rest of the soft drinks industry are considering a voluntary ban on carbonated soft drinks in elementary and middle schools following heavy lobbying from health campaigners.

The American Beverage Association is expected to vote on the matter shortly, and any voluntary ban would mark a significant departure from the industry's previously tough stance on school vending machine restrictions.

According to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Coca Cola is giving the proposal "serious consideration."

 

This perceived change of heart comes after intense lobbying from health groups to kick out soft drinks and junk food from schools in America as a means of fighting the obesity epidemic. The issue has become front page news: 38 states considered school nutrition bills last year, most of which included a vending machine component. At least 14 laws have now been enacted.

 

The industry has lobbied hard to defeat these bills, with mixed success.

 

In Louisiana, for instance, the governor supported a bill that would ban carbonated soft drinks in all schools, but lobbyists representing Coke and Pepsi successfully negotiated a compromise.

 

And in Connecticut, the governor recently vetoed a nutrition bill that would have outlawed soft drinks and junk food in schools. Governor Jodi Rell, who had the final say, decided to throw the bill out.

 

State Senate president Pro Tem Donald Williams, who sponsored the legislation, estimated that soft drink and vending companies spent more than $250,000 lobbying against the bill out of concern that it would set a national precedent.

 

Such decisions have angered nutritionalists, who argue that banning soft drinks from schools is a vital measure to improve the diet of American adolescents.

 

"Hardly any kids are getting enough calcium, vitamins, fiber, vegetables, or fruit," said Lucy Nolan, executive director of pressure group End Hunger Connecticut!. "The more soda you drink, the less of those you get.

 

"If school systems spent half as much time trying to get more fruits and vegetables into schools as they did trying to keep soda contracts, our kids would be much better off."

 

The latest state to attempt to ban soft drinks from schools is California. Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is pushing ahead with legislation that would extend the ban on soft drinks in elementary schools to high schools.

 

"California's children are facing an obesity epidemic," he said.

 

" We need to get parents, teachers, children, schools and our state on the same page to meet this challenge head on. The Healthy Schools Now Act will improve school nutrition by removing junk food and sodas from our public schools."

 

He has urged lawmakers to pass SB395, which would only allow high schools to sell soda 30 minutes before and after the school day. During the day, schools would could sell water, milk, drinks that are at least 50 percent fruit juice with no added sweeteners, and sport drinks designed to replace electrolytes.

 

As with other states, California is facing an epidemic. Californians have gained 360 million pounds in the last 10 years. More than half of the state's adults are overweight or obese and more than a quarter of California's students are overweight, placing California's rate of childhood obesity higher than the national average.

 

It is against this background that the soft drinks industry is considering passing the voluntary ban. Such a measure would avoid states legislatures passing stricter comprehensive bans, and shows that the industry is taking the obesity issue seriously.

 

It would also come one year after Canada's beverage industry put in place a ban on carbonated soft drinks in elementary and middle schools.

 

In any case, this is a principled position that the industry can afford to take. The industry already has a general practice of not selling carbonated soft drinks to students in elementary schools.

 

In addition, school sales don't represent significant revenue for beverage companies. For Coke, schools make up less than 1 percent of sales in North America.