Finally, after months of angry, cautionary rhetoric and mounting pressure from health advocates and "obesity warriors," the soft drink industry announced plans to ban sugary soda from elementary and middle schools and to restrict sales in high schools.
It’s about time!
But before you heartily applaud the entire move, make sure you read on, because this new policy has a number of major flaws and heavy opposition from health advocates, who brand it as a shameless publicity stunt on the part of the soda industry, which simply can’t be trusted.
Anyhow, as I reported earlier this month, the soft drink industry has been mulling over taking such a shift in soda-in-the-schools strategy for a while now.
But, let’s face it, folks, the industry simply had no choice given the fact that drinking empty-calorie, sugary, caffeinated drinks are increasingly being singled out as a reason for the fact that some 9 million school kids aged 6 to 19 are overweight.
Clearly, companies such as Coca-Cola and Pepsico realized the futility and bad PR value to continually fighting proposals to regulate soda sales in the schools. In fact, soft drink companies have become quite notorious for their incredibly intense lobbying of lawmakers and school officials to keep these nutrition-lacking, sweet drinks in the stomachs of school kids. (In spite of their opposition, in state legislatures, 38 states have considered school nutrition bills, with at least 15 laws have been enacted.)
The American Beverage Association — the group that used to be more appropriately called the National Soft Drink Association, because it represents 20 companies comprising some 85 percent of school vending beverage sales — issued a statement late Tuesday. The story was widely picked up by CNN, The New York Times, the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and other media outlets.
Note two interesting tidbits about the policy change:
- Dissension was limited. In fact, the soft drink industry trade group’s board of directors unanimously approved the policy. (Smart move.)
What’s more, the soda group even plans to run print and broadcast advertising to educate the public about the new policy. (Another important step but it doesn’t go far enough.)
(Please continue reading to learn about flaws to the new policy and the reaction of The Center for Science in the Public Interest, The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood, and the Center for Informed Food Choices.)
Although I’m pleased by the soda industry’s move, I believe that it falls short in a number of ways. But first let’s outline the specific changes under the new policy:
- Elementary Schools: Only water and 100 percent juice will be sold
- Middle Schools: Only "nutritious and/or lower calorie beverages, such as water, 100 percent juice, sports drinks, no-calorie soft drinks, and low-calorie juice drinks. No full-calorie soft drinks or full-calorie juice drinks with five percent or less juice until after school; and
- High Schools: A variety of beverage choices, such as bottled water, 100 percent juice, sports drinks, and juice drinks. "No more than 50 percent of the vending selections will be soft drinks."
If you look at what beverages are allowed under the new policy, you need to realize that what the soft drink industry considers "nutritious and/or low-calorie" really aren’t.
- Drinks billed as "100 percent juice" aren’t all that healthy, according to experts. As for juice drinks, they often contain lots of sugars, as well as empty calories.(A number of physicians and nutritionists I interviewed for my upcoming book, SUGAR SHOCK!, warn against juices and juice drinks. Rather, they’re proponents, as I am, of the whole fruit.)
- Sports drinks tend to contain a lot of sugars as well — and how they can be deemed nutritious is a joke.
- Low-calorie soft drinks which are filled with artificial sweeteners such as aspartame and sucralose can in no shape, form or fashion be considered healthy or nutritious. (I’ve talked previously about how diet sodas have been linked to weight gain, not loss.)
Moreoever, I think the new policy, while a good first step, is not nearly as comprehensive enough:
- First off, why are elementary schools the only ones banning soda entirely? This should be extended to all schools.
- Rather than just informing the public about soda changes in the schools, the soft drink trade group should embark upon an extensive, expensive campaign to educate children about good nutrition.
- Finally (but not surprisingly), there’s simply no recognition of the fact that soft drinks not only provide no nutritive value, but drinking them in excess could lead to obesity, diabetes, hypoglycemia and many more health hazards.
Reaction from Health Advocates
As noted previously, health groups are taking the new policy with a grain of salt.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest‘s nutrition director Margo G. Wootan calls the move to pull soda out of elementary schools "an encouraging step from an industry that, up to now, has thrwarted angry parents who want to get soda out of their kids’s chools." Wootan also agreed with me that "soda also has no place in America’s high schools and middle schools, which are much bigger markets for soda companies." The CSPI also noted that the soda industry has "aggressively, and shamefully, taken advantage of the precarious financial position of many public school systems."
The Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood issued a statement calling the move "no more than a shameless public relations stunt designed to deflect mounting criticism" against soda manufacturers. "The soft drink industry has repeatedly demonstrated that it cannot be trusted," said Dr. Susan Linn, co-founder of the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood and author of Consuming Kids. "Dr. Linn noted that Coca-Cola claims it does not market to children under twelve, yet there are Coke toys for children as young as two and Coke’s product placement is ubiquitous on American Idol, a top-rated show for children 2-11 and added, `This is an industry that makes empty promises in order to keep targeting children with empty calories.’"
Meanwhile, the director of the Center for Informed Food Choices found it "ironic that that ABA [the soda group] would choose to make this announcement at the National Conference of State Legislatures meeting, since its members lobby against any state bills to get sodas out of schools." Michele Simon, director of the Center for Informed Food Choices, pointed out that in the past past year alone, such bills in Connecticut, Arizona, Kentucky, and New Mexico were either killed or watered down thanks to lobbying by soft drink companies. "If the ABA and its members were serious about addressing childhood obesity, they’d pledge to immediately stop undermining the effort of local nutrition advocates."
It’s time for you to speak out! Tell us your thoughts. What do you think about this new policy frm the soda industry?
Is this just a shameless publicity stunt or a legitimate effort to help solve the childhood obesity problem?