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Sodas are out in lower grades

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In response to mounting pressure from health advocates, Coca-Cola, Pepsico and the rest of the soft drink industry are voluntarily banning sugary soda in elementary and middle schools and restricting sales in high schools.

The American Beverage Association announced the policy late Tuesday.

The move marks a significant change in strategy for the industry, which has been battling proposals for school vending regulations in legislatures and school districts.

"Childhood obesity is a serious problem in the U.S., and the responsibility for finding common-sense solutions is shared by everyone, including our industry," Susan Neely, ABA president and chief executive officer, said. "We intend to be part of the solution by increasing the availability of lower-calorie and/or nutritious beverages in schools."

The policy says that no carbonated soft drinks, regular or diet, will be sold in vending machines in elementary schools. Only water and 100 percent fruit juice will be allowed.

In middle schools, sugary carbonated soft drinks are out, but diet drinks are allowed, along with so-called healthier alternatives like water, sports drinks, 100 percent juices and diet juice drinks.

At high schools, no more than half the vending machine slots can be filled with carbonated soft drinks, whether regular or diet. The rest will be filled with water, juice, sports drinks and other noncarbonated drinks.

The soft drink industry's plan, first reported in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution last month, has been tweaked in recent weeks to include allowing diet drinks in middle schools. The beverage association's members include Coke, Pepsi, smaller beverage companies and bottlers.

The industry is likely to encounter some criticism from health advocates who say the policy doesn't go far enough.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest and an outspoken critic of the soft drink industry, called the new policy a "modest improvement to our current situation."

He said Tuesday he would like to see a ban on all carbonated soft drinks --- regular and diet --- in all schools.

"This does indicate that the industry is willing to make some small sacrifices, if only to protect its reputation," he said.

The industry already has a practice of not selling carbonated soft drinks to students in elementary schools, though the new proposal would make it more official and consistent.

And in middle and high schools, soft drink companies already are selling water, juice and sports drinks alongside sodas because they are popular with young consumers.

School sales don't represent significant revenue for beverage companies. For Coke, schools make up less than 1 percent of sales in North America.

But the change carries symbolic importance. The industry wants to show parents that it is taking the obesity issue seriously. In the past, Coke and other beverage companies have resisted restrictions because schools are a good place to market to young consumers and develop long-term brand loyalty.

Also, companies don't want limits that seem to acknowledge that soft drinks are bad for kids or that they lead to obesity.

The policy comes nearly a year after Canada's beverage industry instituted a ban on carbonated soft drinks in elementary and middle schools. The Canadian policy doesn't address high schools.

The issue was a hot topic in state legislatures this year, with 38 states considering school nutrition bills, most of which included a vending machine component. At least 15 laws were enacted.

Legislators in Georgia, the home of Coca-Cola, have not taken up the issue.

Copyright 2005 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

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