The soft drink industry unveiled a new set of guidelines to limit the amount of soda that is marketed to kids in schools through vending machines.
The president of the American Beverage Association, the industry's main trade group, announced in a speech yesterday that major players in the business have signed on to a set of voluntary limits that would keep all soda and juice drinks out of elementary schools while curtailing the sales of certain beverages in middle and high schools.
Kathleen Dezio, a spokeswoman for the beverage association, said the industry felt it needed to speak out with a unified voice because many companies and school districts have adopted their own policies limiting the vending of sugary beverages.
Soda companies "wanted to end the hype," she said. "It makes concrete a trend that was already taking place."
The 20 companies on the ABA's board of directors, which approved the new rules, represent 85 percent of all beverage vending in schools, she said. And in some cases, the guidelines put even more bite into the standards that some companies have set for themselves regarding marketing to children.
"It's pretty similar to our preexisting school model, but it does go a little farther," said Dave DeCecco of Pepsi-Cola North America. "Our system fully supports this initiative."
The guidelines call for vending machines in elementary schools to dispense only water or 100 percent fruit juice. For middle schools, from sixth grade to eighth grade, vending machines will sell no full-calorie soft drinks during school hours, or any full-calorie juice drinks containing 5 percent real fruit juice or less.
In high schools, the industry is asking that no more than 50 percent of a vending machine's options be soft drinks.
Advocates of children's nutrition generally praised the effort while suggesting that the directives don't go far enough.
"It's really the first clear admission on the part of the beverage industry that soft drinks in schools are a problem," said Margo G. Wootan, director of nutrition policy at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, an advocacy group that promotes nutrition.
But Wootan said the guidelines, while setting very strict limitations on marketing sodas to children up to fifth grade, are fairly lax when it comes to older kids. She said that in addition to soft drinks, there should be restrictions on sales of sugary fruit drinks or sports drinks, which are just as bad as soda pop nutritionally.
"In elementary schools, you might find one vending machine in a gym somewhere," she said. "But in high schools, you might find several banks with half a dozen or more vending machines. To have such a weak policy for high schools is to miss the whole point."
Under pressure from parents and advocacy groups, the soft drink industry has been slowly scaling back its child-focused marketing, but the new unified plan represents a change in approach. For the past couple of years, the vending and soda industries have largely responded to the issue of obesity in children by stressing that kids aren't getting enough exercise and need to eat more balanced diets in general.
The vending machine industry is still stressing that point, despite the ABA's new recommendations.
"Obesity, being the complicated problem that it is, can be addressed through a wide variety of measures that people can take on their own," said Brian B. Allen, director of government affairs for the National Automatic Merchandising Association.
"We've done studies that show that students just don't buy a lot of products per capita through vending machines that would significantly be contributing to their obesity issues," he said.