NEW YORK – America's largest beverage distributors have agreed to halt nearly all sales of sodas to public schools — a step that will remove the sugary, caloric drinks from vending machines and cafeterias around the country.
Under the agreement announced Wednesday by the William J. Clinton Foundation, the companies also have agreed to sell only water, unsweetened juice and low-fat milks to elementary and middle schools, said Jay Carson, a spokesman for former President Bill Clinton. Only diet sodas would be sold to high schools.
"I don't think anyone should underestimate the influence this agreement will have," said Susan Neely, president and CEO of the American Beverage Association, which has signed onto the deal. "I think other people are going to want to follow this agreement because it just makes sense."
The agreement should reach an estimated 87 percent of the school drink market, Neely said. Industry giants Cadbury Schweppes PLC, Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. — all ABA members — have agreed to the changes, she said.
The Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a collaboration between Clinton's foundation and the American Heart Association, helped to broker the deal.
The move follows a mounting wave of regulation by school boards and legislators alarmed by reports of rising childhood obesity. Soda has been a particular target of those fighting obesity because of its caloric content and popularity among children.
Still, the deal imposes stricter drink regulations than are currently in place for nearly 35 million public school students.
"This is really the beginning of a major effort to modify childhood obesity at the level of the school systems," said Robert H. Eckel, the president of the Heart Association, adding that the alliance would also be working to put healthier foods in schools.
John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, which compiles extensive data on the beverage industry, said the agreement would have no impact on the $63 billion beverage industry's bottom line.
"The sale of sugar-carbonated sodas in schools is a tiny, tiny part of their overall volume," said Sicher.
He applauded the move, however, saying "The impact is more in terms of responsibility and accountability to the consumer."
Under the agreement, high schools will still be able to sell low-calorie drinks that contain less than 10 calories per serving, as well as drinks that are considered nutritious, such as juice, sports drinks and low-fat milk. The "nutritious" drinks will be limited to 12-ounce servings, Neely said.
Elementary schools will sell 8-ounce servings of the "nutritious" drinks, and middle school kids will get 10-ounce-size drinks.
School sales of healthier drinks have been on the rise in recent years, while non-diet soda purchases by students have been falling, according to an ABA report released in December. But regular soda, averaging 150 calories per can, is still the most popular drink among students, accounting for 45 percent of drinks sold in U.S. schools in 2005, according to the report.
How quickly the changes take hold will depend in part on individual school districts' willingness to alter existing contracts, The Alliance for a Healthier Generation said in a release. The companies will work to implement the changes at 75 percent of America's public schools before the 2008-2009 school year, and at all public schools a year later, the alliance said.