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Beverage vending machines lined the lunch area at Jones College Prep High School in Chicago. Sale of high-calorie sodas would be banned in high schools under the agreement, but diet sodas and some sports drinks would be permitted.
Beverage vending machines lined the lunch area at Jones College Prep High School in Chicago. Sale of high-calorie sodas would be banned in high schools under the agreement, but diet sodas and some sports drinks would be permitted. (Tim Boyle/ Getty Images/ File)

After soda ban, nutritionists say more can be done

The nation's biggest beverage companies yesterday agreed to stop selling regular soft drinks in the nation's public schools, but critics wondered whether the pact goes far enough to curb the country's growing obesity problem.

The agreement, negotiated by former President Clinton and the American Heart Association, would phase in a ban over the next four years of all soft drinks and sports drinks in elementary and middle schools. Sugary, high-calorie sodas would be banned from being sold in high schools, but diet sodas are allowed as well as sports drinks that contain fewer than 100 calories per 12-ounce serving.

Clinton, speaking at a press conference in New York City, said he hoped to broker similar agreements with food manufacturers. ''We are eating more fast food and got into this super-size culture," he said. ''I used to be a part of it. I don't think there are any villains here. I don't think anybody realized this confluence of forces could produce such results."

Nutrition advocates hailed the soft-drink agreement with Coca-Cola Co., PepsiCo. Inc., Cadbury Schweppes PLC, and the American Beverage Association as a step in the right direction. ''Now kids won't be bombarded with soda when they're thirsty at school. They may turn to water or milk," said Caroline M. Apovian, director of the Nutrition and Weight Management Center at Boston Medical Center.

But Apovian and other nutrition specialists also said they are concerned about the exception for sports drinks, which they dismissed as little more than sugar water. A 12-ounce Gatorade All-Star drink, for example, contains 90 calories, while a 12-ounce Pepsi contains 150 calories.

''A calorie is a calorie is a calorie," said Aviva Must, an associate professor in the department of public health and family medicine at the Tufts University School of Medicine. ''I would prefer these machines carry just water and low-fat dairy products, but I think this is a good start."

In some respects, the agreement reflects a shift that is already taking place within the beverage industry. Consumers of all ages are drinking fewer carbonated soft drinks while sales of bottled waters and sports drinks are increasing rapidly.

John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, said carbonated soft drink sales declined 0.9 percent last year in the United States, the first drop in more than 20 years. He said sales of bottled waters and sports drinks increased about 20 percent.

The same shift is taking place within the nation's schools. According to a study conducted last year for the American Beverage Association, sales of regular soda at schools of all levels declined 24.3 percent between 2002 and 2004, while sales of sports drinks increased nearly 70 percent.

Ralph D. Crowley Jr., the president of Polar Beverages in Worcester and the head of the American Beverage Association, estimated that companies would have to spend $100 million over the next few years retrofitting school vending machines and other products to comply with the agreement.

Polar, for example, sells 20-ounce Gatorades in the Worcester schools and will have to reduce the container size to 12 ounces under the agreement. Crowley said regular soft drinks represent just 5 percent of the company's sales in Worcester schools.

Beverage industry officials said the soft-drink agreement, based on expirations of existing contracts, should be implemented at 75 percent of the nation's public schools by the time the 2008-2009 school year begins and at the rest by the next year. The officials said the policy would have a negligible financial impact. PepsiCo Inc., for example, said less than 1 percent of its sales by volume come from schools.

Schools typically sell soda through vending machines, which they regulate through contracts with manufacturers. Boston schools will see little change. The Boston school system banned soft drinks, fruit drinks with little nutritional value, and sports drinks in 2004.

In Shrewsbury, the terms of yesterday's agreement will probably be incorporated into the school system's next beverage contract. Under its current contract, Coca-Cola, in exchange for the right to install vending machines, provided the school district with $35,000 worth of scoreboards, an upfront cash payment of more than $14,000, and sales commissions of approximately $6,000 a year.

At Waltham Senior High School, which has Pepsi vending machines, some students said the soft-drink ban may be tough to swallow.

Senior Brian Feeley, 18, said he supports the ban but felt many of his friends might object. ''Some just never drink water. They only drink soda. It's not too healthy," he said.

Sophomore John Cushera, 16, said he buys Mountain Dew from the school vending machine every morning before first period and would probably bring a bottle from home if he couldn't get one at school. ''Even though it's bad for me, Mountain Dew is the best," he said.

Under the new agreement, elementary and middle schools will only be allowed to sell water, juices with no added sweeteners, and skim or 1 percent milk. High schools will be able to sell those drinks plus diet sodas, seltzers, unsweetened teas, and sports drinks. Sports drinks can be sold in 12-ounce containers but cannot exceed more than 100 calories.

The beverage industry has been under increasing pressure to restrict its sales to schoolchildren. Here in Massachusetts, a bill filed by Representative Peter J. Koutoujian, a Waltham Democrat would bar the sale of all soft drinks and sports drinks in schools as well as restrict the sale of snack foods. Koutoujian said he plans to continue to push for the bill, which is pending in the House.

The Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington and the Public Health Advocacy Institute in Boston have also threatened to sue the soft-drink companies for their sales to school children. Richard Daynard, president of the institute and a Northeastern University law professor, said he has been trying to negotiate a similar deal with the beverage companies for the last six months.

Bruce Mohl can be reached at Globe Correspondent David Cutler contributed to this report and material from Bloomberg News was used.

Allowed in high school
Bottled water

Diet sodas

Milk, flavored OK, but only low, non fat

100% fruit juice without added sweeteners

Sport drinks and other light juices with up to 100 calories per 12 ounce serving

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