OLYMPIA, WASH. The American Beverage Assn. on Tuesday recommended limiting the availability of soft drinks in schools across the country, saying the industry needs to help fight the increasing rate of childhood obesity.
ABA President and CEO Susan Neely was to formally announce the organization's policy recommendation today at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures in Seattle.
"Childhood obesity is a real problem," Neely told The Associated Press. "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."
Neely argues soft drinks aren't inherently bad but she wants parents to have the assurance that their children aren't drinking an excessive amount of sweetened drinks at school.
The association's board voted unanimously Tuesday to work with school districts to ensure that vending machines stock only bottled water and 100 percent juice in elementary schools. But most elementary schools already are soda-free, the association said.
Under the group's recommendation, middle school students would have access to additional drinks, like 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 couldn't be available during school hours.
High school students would have access to all types of drinks, including soda, but no more than 50 percent of the vending machine selections would be soft drinks.
"Parents tell us they'd like help in determining what products are sold in schools, and we're listening," Dawn Hudson, president and chief executive officer, Pepsi-Cola North America, said in a statement.
The association's recommendation isn't binding, but Neely said the 20-member board represents 85 percent of the bottlers involved in school vending.
Pepsi and Coca-Cola already had guidelines in place that prevented the sale of soda to students in elementary schools.
"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 COO, Coca-Cola North America.
An estimated 9 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 CDC.
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.
Of the 38 states that considered legislation this year dealing with school nutrition, 15 enacted legislation that addressed the issue in some way, said Amy Winterfeld, a health policy analyst with the state legislatures group.
According to the state legislatures conference, annual obesity-attributed medical expenses in the United States were estimated at $75 billion in 2003.