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Fewer soft drinks going into school vending machines

WASHINGTON - School vending machines are stocked with fewer high-calorie soft drinks today because some states have banned the sale of sodas on campus and the beverage industry is phasing in healthier drinks, according to an industry report.

The findings being released Monday are in the industry's first report card since agreeing in May 2006 to pull nondiet soft drinks from the vast majority of public and private schools over the next three years.

Nondiet soda accounted for 32 percent of the drinks for sale at schools during the 2006-07 school year. In 2004 it was 47 percent.

Also, the beverages shipped to schools last year contained about two-fifths total fewer calories than what they did in 2004, the report said.

'Through these guidelines, the beverage industry is cutting calories in schools in a dramatic way across the country,' said Susan Neely, president and chief executive officer of the American Beverage Association. The trade group represents the country's nonalcoholic beverage industry, which includes soda, bottled water and fruit drinks.

Health officials long have expressed concern that schools contributed to rising obesity rates because campus vending machines sold high-calorie and high-sugar snacks and drinks.

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said the report card offers some good news.

'It looks like the country has taken a good step forward in addressing soft drinks in schools, but we still have a lot of work to do,' she said.

Wootan said about 22 states limit the sale of sugary drinks in some grades. For example, Kentucky's school vending machines are filled with bottled water and dried fruit instead of soda and snack cakes. About a dozen states ban the sale of full-calorie soft drinks in high schools.

Wootan said she believes legislative mandates are more effective than voluntary guidelines. But she said the guidelines have reduced the amount of unhealthy offerings in vending machines.

'It's a part of the mix. I wouldn't put it as the most important contributor,' she said. 'The soft drink industry deserves a lot of praise for how far they've come in the past five years. They used to fight us every step of the way at the local, state and national level.'

Most elementary schools are already soda-free. But under the voluntary guidelines, beverage companies agreed to sell only water, unsweetened juice and low-fat and nonfat milk to elementary and middle schools. Diet sodas and sports drinks will remain in high schools.

The guidelines were brokered by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a collaboration between the William J. Clinton Presidential Foundation and the American Heart Association.

It involves industry leaders Cadbury Schweppes PLC, Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo Inc. as well as the beverage association, which together control 87 percent of the public and private school drink market.

Robert Wescott, the economist hired by the beverage association to evaluate vending machine stock, said the overall shipment of nondiet soft drinks to schools peaked in 2003-04 school year, so deliveries were falling even before the industry's agreement. But that trend has accelerated, he said.

'I'm very confident we have the correct story here: Volumes are down sharply and the shift is heavily away from carbonated soft drinks,' Wescott said.

Overall, shipments of all beverages to schools, when measured in ounces, dropped 27 percent between 2004 and the 2006-07 school year.

The biggest declines were in sugary fruit drinks, 56.2 percent, and full-calorie soft drinks, 45.1 percent. Meanwhile, there was a 22.8 percent increase in the volume of bottled water in school vending machines.

Neely said the guidelines led the beverage industry to invest millions of dollars to retrofit vending machines and repackage products. Those efforts will continue as companies work toward fully ending sales of nondiet soft drinks by the 2009-10 school year.