Responding to the growing rate of childhood obesity, the nation’s leading beverage producers, including the Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc., have approved voluntary guidelines that would prohibit the sale of all soft drinks in elementary schools and restrict their availability in middle and high schools.
The board of the American Beverage Association, whose members collectively sell 85 percent of the soft drinks in the school vending market, approved the policy on Aug. 16. Under the guidelines, producers would provide elementary schools with only water and 100 percent juice, and middle schools with nutritious and low-calorie drinks, including water, sports drinks, and fruit juices as well as no-calorie soft drinks. In high schools, no more than 50 percent of the selections in vending machines could be regular or diet soft drinks.
“We believe this policy is a sensible approach that addresses the issues unique to the school environment,” the trade group’s president, Susan K. Neely, said in announcing the guidelines at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Seattle on Aug. 17. “We understand that parents want more control over what their younger children consume in school, and we want to support them with this policy.”
Besides soft drink giants like Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and Dr Pepper/Seven-UpInc., the Washington-based beverage association counts among its members the fruit-juice drink producers such as Odwalla, and Tropicana Products Inc.
The guidelines will apply only to new contracts between school districts and beverage companies. For existing contracts, the policy would be implemented only after the contracts expire, which could be several years away in some schools.
School health advocates have long contended that soft drinks are a major contributor to childhood obesity, diabetes, and tooth decay. Some welcomed the beverage industry’s move, but said that the trade association needs to ensure that bottlers and distributors at the local level abide by the new guidelines.
David K. Lohrrman, the president of the American School Health Association, a Kent, Ohio-based advocacy group, said, for instance, that while the Coca-Cola Co. has for some time had “very good recommendations” on restricting sales in schools, the company has not had much of an impact on the local bottlers and distributors that supply the soft drinks to schools.
The American Beverage Association “ought to send a personal letter to every state legislator in the country and every school board, encouraging them to pass legislation and policies that are consistent with the policy statement,” Mr. Lohrrman said.
Kathleen Dezio, a spokeswoman for the trade group, said that the beverage makers expected a strong show of support from bottlers and distributors.
“In adopting the policy, our board committed themselves to implement it,” she said, adding that it also expected strong support from educators. Ms. Neely said in a speech to the state legislators’ conference that she plans to send a letter to more than 120,000 principals asking them to support the policy.
Mr. Lohrrman said the industry’s move was part of a positive trend to respond to child-health concerns.
“What this is showing is that different players are willing to address this problem,” he said. “[Childhood] obesity came on the radar a couple of years ago, and people then wouldn’t have predicted the changes that are now beginning to occur.”
Some states, such as California and Arkansas, have enacted laws that restrict the sale of soft drinks in schools. In addition, Colorado, Louisiana, Tennessee, and Washington state have laws that only restrict vending-machine sales of the drinks or encourage schools to study how they can supply more nutritious food items to students. Several other states are considering bills that would restrict the sale of soft drinks in schools.