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Departing sharply from the years when school districts were signing multimillion-dollar contracts with soft drink companies, legislation approved Thursday by the state Senate would ban most soda sales at California schools.
The legislation, which narrowly cleared the 40-member body on a 22-15 vote, now faces Assembly scrutiny.
Health advocates more than ever are pointing toward soda as a source of problems in children, including increased rates of obesity, tooth decay and diabetes. Some 30 percent of children in California are overweight or at risk of being overweight, according to one recent study.
Gary Ruskin, executive director of Commercial Alert, an Oregon-based organization that fights marketing efforts to children, applauded passage of the bill. "Schools ought to help teach good nutrition and not abet junk food companies' promotion of junk food," Ruskin said. "Schools ought to side with the parents, not side with greedy junk food companies."
Carried by Sen. Deborah Ortiz, D-Sacramento, SB 677 would prohibit the sale of carbonated beverages to pupils in elementary, middle or junior high schools after Sept. 1, 2005.
The ban of soda sales to high school students would apply only to on-campus activities during the school day and would kick in Sept. 1, 2006.
Drinks for sale during school hours would be limited to water, milk and 100 percent juice products. High schools also would be allowed to sell sports drinks.
The legislation is being fought by the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Automatic Vendors Council, the California-Nevada Soft Drink Association and the California School Food Service Association.
"We think the issue of childhood obesity runs a lot deeper than drinking soda," said Robert Ackerman, executive director of the soft drink association. "Banning soft drinks is not the solution to (childhood obesity)."
Ackerman and his colleagues with the National Soft Drink Association said the Legislature would be more productive if it put its energy into health and physical education programs.
"Each day that we focus on gimmick solutions -- like banning soft drinks -- we delay meaningful work," said Sean McBride, of the national association.
School food service operators have argued that trendier food items and soda sales help subsidize meal offerings. In a letter opposing the measure, the food service association said SB 677 would "severely affect the financial stability" of school food programs.
Ackerman and McBride said drinking soda, like consuming other not-so-healthy food, is fine, so long as it is part of a balanced diet.
"I'm going to rely on the pediatricians, the dentists, the endocrinologists, the heart association who have all consistently said this product is not only devoid of any nutritional value ... but actually compromises student health in terms of bone density, as well as tooth decay, and as well as pre-diabetes and high insulin loads," said Ortiz, who heads the Senate Health and Human Services Committee and has made childhood obesity one of her key issues.
Last year, she lost her bid for legislation to place a surcharge on sodas to pay for programs combating childhood obesity.
"We have a huge problem of childhood obesity and teen obesity ... and one of the aspects of that is a high-sugar, no-nutritional-value product that appears to be significantly increasing in consumption," she said Thursday.
As school districts struggled to find funds in the 1990s, some turned to soda companies that were offering cash for exclusive sales and marketing contracts.
Ortiz said the Legislature -- by not spending enough money on education -- was partially to blame for that. Lawmakers reacted by making it harder for districts to make secret deals with soda companies.
"School districts regarded it as a certain source of revenue," said Ortiz, whose legislation does not propose any replacement for the schools' lost revenue.
The tide is also turning at the school-district level, with several having banned soda sales on their own.
"They have risen above the sexiness of a revenue stream," said Ortiz, "because they realize how important they are in dealing with childhood obesity."
"There are some things that are too important to be for sale," Ruskin added, "and our schools, our children and their health are three good examples."
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