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School soft drink sales down, no obesity threat, claims ABA

By Lorraine Heller , 05-Dec-2005

Sales of full-calorie soft drinks in schools have fallen in recent years, said the American Beverage Asociation (ABA) in a new study, published as soda companies face a possible threat of legal action for selling soft drinks in schools.

The study, published last week, forms part of an attempt by the industry body to disassociate the nation's ongoing obesity crisis with children's consumption of soft drinks.

According to the ABA, which based its findings on data from beverage bottling companies, sales of non-diet soft drinks in schools dropped 24 percent between 2002 and 2004. In the same period, sales of sports drinks increased by 70 percent, water sales increased by 23 percent, diet soft drinks by 22 percent and pure juices by 15 percent.

The ABA's president and chief executive Susan Neely claims that soft drinks are therefore "a very minor source of calories in the diets of American youth" and are "not contributing measurably to obesity rates in the school-age population."

The response comes after growing concern that sugary soft drinks are contributing greatly to the growing obesity epidemic among children. A recent study showed that sweet drinks have overtaken white bread as the leading source of calories in the American diet, while another suggested that consuming fructose affects the metabolic rate in a way that favors fat storage.

All this has lead to greater pressure on soft drinks manufacturers to address health concerns. There has also been intense lobbying from health groups to kick out soft drinks and junk food from schools in America - 38 states considered school nutrition bills last year, most of which included a vending machine component. At least 14 laws have now been enacted.

Indeed, just a few months ago, the ABA, backed by PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, introduced a voluntary ban on all drinks except water and 100 per cent juice in elementary schools, and all full-calorie soft drinks in middle schools in the US.

"Childhood obesity is a serious problem in the US, and the responsibility for finding common-sense solutions is shared by everyone, including our industry," Neely had said.

"We understand that parents want more control over what their younger children consume in school and we want to support them with this policy," she added.

Earlier this year, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) called for cigarette-style warnings on soft drinks to alert consumers that too much of the sugary beverages can make people fat and cause other health problems. At that time, Neely said that asking the FDA to put warning labels on soft drinks, or any food products that contain caloric sweeteners, would be highly patronizing to consumers.

As with the voluntary ban, the ABA's recent study can be seen as a means of avoiding possible legal challenges and law suits over links between soft drink consumption at school and rising obesity.