Howard County students promise to go soda-free for a month

A chorus of "Sign it! Sign it!" grew louder and stronger as the young audience at a Howard County elementary school urged a slightly reluctant teacher to swear off soda for the next month.

The fourth-grade teacher at Talbott Springs Elementary School in Columbia hesitated for just a minute or two before writing her name on a "Soda-Free 30" pledge sheet that read, "Who says resolutions have to wait for the new year?" beneath a time span of Oct. 20 to Nov. 18.

"It will be hard," Debra Washington said. "I drink soda every day, but I am going to try my best. My son and I are real soda consumers. I guess I will start with not buying any."

Abstaining may be easier in the school building, where there is no temptation from soda vending machines.

Howard officials launched the campaign by making an appeal to about 100 fourth- and fifth-grade students and their teachers. Nearly all took the pledge. There was no pressure to sign — except in the case of Washington.

"It's so important that I am signing it twice," said fourth-grader Dominique Roy.

After a month of abstaining, children in particular might lose the craving for the fizzy, sugar-loaded beverages, said Dr. Peter L. Beilenson, county health officer.

"The average person takes three weeks to change behavior," he said. "In some cases, there is a physiological addiction to sugar."

A month is doable, most pledgers said.

"I can do it," said fifth-grader Nikima McIntire III. "I already gave up Powerade."

The city of Boston called for a summer without soda last year, Principal Nancy Thompson told the students. She told the children to encourage their parents and teachers in the effort.

"This will be harder for adults," she said.

County Executive Ken Ulman also signed and said his wife and two young daughters were all on board with the no-soda regimen. He knew his own challenge might be the most difficult.

"I usually have a Diet Coke sitting on my desk," he said.

Ulman, Beilenson and school Superintendent Sydney Cousin said they are using the school as a model. If the campaign succeeds there, they hope to take the pledge concept countywide.

Officials asked the children to spread the word among friends and family, and share compelling statistics to strengthen their pleas. Beilenson said the average American drinks 50 gallons of soda annually, and one average drink equals 224 calories. Diabetes is occurring more frequently in children, and obesity is a national problem.

"There is no nutrition in soda, just sugar," he said. "We want you to avoid bad foods, particularly sodas."

Willie Gulley III, a fifth-grader, said he would ask his mother to swear off diet sodas, too. He offered another argument: "Soda can give you rotten teeth," he said. "Go with water. You will stay healthy."

Classmate Margaret McCready said she is immediately switching to fruit juice. "It's still sweet, but it's healthy-ish."

A month without soda could become a lifelong habit for the 9-, 10- and 11-year-olds, Thompson said. She knows the preteens are up to the challenge.

"This is the perfect stage in their development for them to take this on," she said. "And at this age, they are really competitive by nature."

When Thompson took questions, one child wondered whether there would be prizes for those who passed the 30-day test.

"You will feel really healthy," Thompson replied.

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