OLYMPIA, WASH. — The American Beverage Association is recommending limiting the availability of soft drinks in schools across the country, a move that comes amid increased pressure to curb the epidemic of childhood obesity.
Susan Neely, president and chief executive officer of the A.B.A., said parents should have the assurance that their children are not drinking an excessive amount of sweetened drinks at school.
"Childhood obesity is a real problem," Ms. Neely said. "The individual companies have been doing several things to be part of the solution and there was an agreement among all of our leadership that we needed to take another step and take it as an industry."
Ms. Neely noted that soft drinks aren’t inherently bad, and are fine for physically active children who eat a balanced diet. At the same time, she said she wants parents to feel comfortable knowing their children aren’t drinking an excessive amount of sweetened drinks at school.
The decision was made only a month after the Center for Science in the Public Interest requested that the Food and Drug Administration place warning labels on soft drinks that contain caloric sweeteners.
At the time, Ms. Neely said that such a move "patronizes consumers and lacks common sense." Despite her criticism of the request, Ms. Neely stated that the beverage manufacturers and distributors were working to help solve America’s obesity challenge in several ways, including by offering a variety of package sizes for many products and investing millions of dollars in physical fitness initiatives to encourage people to be more active.
Ms. Neely was scheduled to formally announce the organization’s new policy recommendation Wednesday at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Seattle.
The association’s board voted unanimously Tuesday to work with school districts to ensure that vending machines stock only bottled water and 100% juice in elementary schools, although most of these schools are already soda-free.
The group also is suggesting middle school students have access to additional drinks, such as sports drinks, no-calorie soft drinks and low-calorie juice drinks. Middle schools could have additional machines with soft drinks and full-calorie juice drinks available for organizations that may hold meetings at the school, but the beverages could not be available during school hours.
High school students would have access to all types of drinks, including soda, but no more than 50% of the vending machine selections would be soft drinks.
The association’s recommendation is not binding, but Ms. Neely said the 20-member board represents 85% of the bottlers involved in school vending.
Coca-Cola and Pepsi said they supported the move.
"These guidelines mark a commitment by the industry to provide schools with beverages that offer variety, nutrition and fewer calories, and are very similar to the Coca-Cola System’s current guidelines in the U.S.," said Don Knauss, president and chief operating officer, Coca-Cola North America.
Dawn Hudson, president and chief executive officer of Pepsi-Cola North America, added in a statement that "parents tell us they’d like help in determining what products are sold in schools, and we’re listening."
An estimated nine million schoolchildren ages 6-19 nationwide are overweight, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Since 1980, the number of overweight children has doubled, and the number of overweight adolescents has tripled, according to the C.D.C.
Individual school districts around the country have responded to the problem, with many starting to get rid of soda and candy in vending machines and replacing them with healthier items.
Several states have considered or enacted laws establishing nutrition standards in schools, including whether students should have access to vending machine soft drinks.
Thirty-eight states considered legislation this year dealing with school nutrition, and 15 of them enacted legislation that addressed the issue in some way, said Amy Winterfeld, a health policy analyst with the state legislatures group.
Ms. Neely said that following Wednesday’s announcement, her organization will be sending information about the new policy to its more than 200 members who service schools across the country. Full-page ads will start appearing in national newspapers starting Thursday, and school principals will start receiving letters making them aware of the policy.