Moves to Preempt Government Bans on Soda Sales

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WASHINGTON ( -- In an effort to head off government regulations banning school sales of their products, beverage makers today announced their own offensive to limit the availability of soft drinks in the nation's school vending machines.

Under the American Beverage Association's new policy, only bottled water and 100% fruit juices will be sold in elementary school vending machines.
The American Beverage Association, whose members include the major soft-drink marketers, unveiled the new policy today.

High school
The policy bans the sale of soft drinks in elementary school vending machines, replacing the beverages with bottled water and 100% fruit juices. In middle schools, full-calorie soft drinks are banned, but no-calorie sodas can be sold along with low-calorie juice drinks, sports drinks, water and 100% juices. In high schools, no more than 50% of vending selections can be soft drinks. Energy drinks are not mentioned in the policy, but both Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo said energy drinks weren’t sold in schools.

Vending machines only
The new policies affect vending machine distribution only.

“Childhood obesity is a serious problem in the U.S., and the responsibility for finding common-sense solutions is shared by everyone, including our industry. We intend to be part of the solution by increasing the availability of lower-calorie and/or nutritious beverages in schools,” Susan K. Neely, the ABA's president-CEO, said in a statement.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest, which has been pushing to remove the drinks from schools, called the move a "mixed bag” that doesn’t go far enough.

“It’s great that Coke, Pepsi and the other folks are going to help get soda and other sugary drinks out of elementary schools, but they are leaving out the secondary schools where the biggest problem is,” said Margo Wootan, CSPI’s director of nutrition policy.

'A half measure'
She characterized today's announcement as a "half measure aimed at trying to prevent legislation that local school districts and Congress need to address.”

Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, was critical of the program, despite acknowledging it was a step in the right direction.

“It’s an act of desperation to head off what so many groups are now calling for,” she said. “If it were up to me I would eliminate vending machines from schools, end of discussion. That’s the extreme position, so everybody is looking for some intermediate position that will satisfy critics and still allow these companies to bring in the revenue and allow schools to have revenue. This is a corrupt position for the schools."

The drinking water situation
Nor does she believe children should have to buy drinking water, and said many schools don’t keep their water taps in decent shape. “I feel very strongly about the drinking water situation,” she said. “It’s shocking.”

Two other consumer groups, the Center for Informed Food Choices and the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, called the new policy a "PR stunt" and said it was "ironic" that the announcement was made at the National Conference of State Legislatures meeting, "since its members lobby against any state bills to get sodas out of schools."

"If the ABA and its members were serious about addressing childhood obesity, they'd pledge to immediately stop undermining the effort of local nutrition advocates," said Michele Simon, director of the Center for Informed Food Choices.

No enforcement mechanism
The groups complained the policy has no enforcement mechanism. They also alleged that PepsiCo and Coca-Cola policies against selling soft drinks in elementary schools "are routinely violated" by distributors.

"The soft-drink industry has repeatedly demonstrated that it cannot be trusted," said Susan Linn, co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood,

Kathleen Dezio, the ABA’s vice president of communications, called such complaints an "extremist perspective" and called the new policy a "significant change."

“This policy was carefully thought through over many months," she said. "It is based on the wishes of parents who want a little more control over what younger children can choose from."

Coke and Pepsi endorse policy
Coca-Cola and PepsiCo issued statements endorsing the program, emphasizing that they are working with bottlers and schools to implement it.

Pepsi referred questions about conflicts of interest to the ABA.

A Coca-Cola spokesman said, “We’re there because they’ve asked us to be there. Our system has always recognized that schools are a very special place and we work very hard to listen to parents and local school official and that our presence in the schools reflects their wishes.”

Schools are required to work with parents to establish wellness policies, according to a spokesman for the Parent Teachers Association. The PTA is drafting a more specific response to the ABA announcement.

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