America's largest beverage makers pledged yesterday to stop selling their signature sodas and other high-sugar drinks in the nation's schools as part of an agreement with health care groups who allege that soft drinks contribute to an epidemic of childhood obesity.
The agreement permits only water, low-fat milk and unsweetened juice to be sold in elementary and middle schools - and only 8 ounces in elementary and 10 ounces in middle schools. High schools will have a little more leeway to stock as much as 12-ounce containers of juice, milk and sports drinks - but half the products must be low- or no-calorie. Diet soda is also permitted, as long as each serving is no more than 8 ounces.
The announcement drew cautious praise from health care experts, who warn that the poor diets and expanding waistlines of American children have led to an increase in diabetes and may contribute to higher rates of heart attacks, strokes and other problems later in life.
"This is a great step forward, but we're not done," said Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy for the Center for Science in the Public Interest, a Washington-based nonprofit group that was preparing a lawsuit against beverage makers.
The deal is the result of negotiations among the Alliance for a Healthier Generation - a project of the William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association - the American Beverage Association, and Cadbury-Schweppes, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, which collectively sell 89 percent of all carbonated beverages sold in the United States.
"This is an important announcement and a bold step forward in the struggle to help America's kids live healthier lives," former President Bill Clinton, who had his own famous bouts with weight gain, said in a written statement. "There is a lot of work to be done to turn this problem around, but this is a big step in the right direction and it will help improve the diet of millions of students across the country."
The soda ban will go into effect at three-quarters of the country's schools by fall 2008, and the rest by 2009 if existing contracts can be changed, according to estimates by the alliance. The changes won't affect concessions at sporting events, concerts or theater productions that booster clubs and other groups rely on for fundraising, said the foundation.
Wootan said the policy doesn't go far enough because it doesn't remove candy, chips, snack cakes and other junk foods from vending machines. Also, she said it falls short by allowing sports drinks and juice drinks in high schools. "Both are basically sugary water and not healthy choices," she said.
Others warned that kids drink most of their soft drinks off school grounds, so a ban on campuses is unlikely to reverse the upward trend of weight.
But the American Beverage Association predicted the move would help promote better diets.
"Schools provide an opportunity to create a healthy environment that equips our children with these skills. Our industry will continue to do our part to contribute to that environment," Susan Neely, president and CEO of the American Beverage Association, said in a written statement.
Last year, the group announced a policy to provide water and 100 percent juice at elementary schools and only "nutritious and low-calorie" beverages at middle schools, and have soft drinks make up no more than 50 percent of beverages at high schools.
The agreement continues a public health campaign that is already well under way: Many states have considered or enacted limits on sales of "foods of minimal nutritional value" in schools.
"The industry has been pushed to do this by all of the strong local school food policies, state legislation and now by a strong bipartisan bill in Congress that would get soda and other junk foods out of schools," Wootan said. Last year, 200 bills were introduced in 40 states to get soda and other junk food out of schools, she said.
"I wish this took care of all junk offered in school. We are still going to be pushing hard for national standards and to get all sugary drinks, candy and junk out of schools," she said.
Soda is not sold in some Maryland school cafeterias, and vending machines are not supposed to be used until the end of the last lunch period in all schools. The state school board also adopted voluntary guidelines last year that local school districts are introducing.
Maryland's voluntary standards call for drink and snack machines remaining off at elementary and middle schools during school hours. Only water, milk, 100-percent juice drinks and sports drinks should be sold during the school day. Some systems have adopted or are considering more stringent standards.
Mitchell Smallwood, a 16-year-old sophomore at Howard County's Reservoir High School who estimates he drinks four sodas a day, said he won't give up the habit.
"It just tastes better than other things," he said. "It gives me sugar and caffeine." Smallwood said he would bring his own soda to school when the agreement goes into effect.
Since September, students at Reservoir High School have purchased 1,035 cases of beverages - both carbonated and non-carbonated - from six soda machines and additional juice and water machines, according to school officials.
Akeem Smith, 16, buys diet sodas from the vending machine at his school, New Era Academy in Baltimore, instead of regular to cut his risk for diabetes, which runs in his family.
"Diet soda, it cuts down on calories and sugar so we won't have to go to the hospital like our parents did," he said. But Akeem said students will still get their sugar fix. "Basically, if they don't have sodas in school, they'll go to the store and buy soda," he said.
The ban is expected to have the most effect in Maryland's secondary schools, particularly high schools, whose buildings are used until late at night by clubs, sports teams and community groups.
The action will cut into revenues for schools, where proceeds of vending machine sales go into funds that pay for speakers, competition entry fees and travel.
Reservoir's assistant vice principal, Dave Strothers, estimated the school earns 30 cents for every beverage sold.
"Yes, it will have financial implications, but schools are about more than money," said Al Thompson, principal of Harbor City High School, an alternative school in Baltimore. "They're about making right choices, and we have to help students make the right choices during their formative years. ... It's a moral issue."
In Baltimore public schools, vending machines in some middle and high schools have soda, but they are on timers to activate only after school hours, said Eric Letsinger, the school system's chief operating officer. Other school districts in Maryland are doing this as well.
The money from those sales goes back to individual school budgets. The school system contracts with Pepsi for those vending machines, Letsinger said, so Pepsi will now need to provide beverages other than soda.
The ban "would reduce [revenues], but it won't eliminate it," said Brian Gonzalez, principal of Perry Hall High School in Baltimore County. He said he agrees with the ban, although soda and snack sales bring in more than $10,000 annually. "We would live with it. We would just have to budget more carefully."
Carroll's assistant superintendent of administration Steven Guthrie said he supports the soda ban but said he believes that tackling the nation's obesity problem relies upon many outside factors, including a child's home environment.
Sun reporters Jonathan Bor, Gina Davis and Sara Neufeld contributed to this article.
SCHOOL BEVERAGE GUIDELINES
Most sodas will be banned from U.S. public schools by 2009-2010 schoole year under an agreement with the major soft-drink manufacturers -- Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Cadbury Schweppes -- brokered by former President Bill Clinton.