WEDNESDAY, May 3, 2006 (HealthDay News) -- Health experts are applauding today's agreement by major soft drink manufacturers to limit the sale of sodas in U.S. schools, calling it an important first step in a much-needed effort to combat childhood obesity and to provide better nutrition to youngsters during the school day.
"For the first time, we are going to be able to control calories in beverage form in schools," said Dr. Robert Eckel, president of the American Heart Association, which helped push for the initiative. "That's an attempt to get at this childhood obesity epidemic."
While the ban -- estimated to affect about 35 million students -- should have an impact on obesity, Eckel said that it "needs to be added to many other things that need to be done, such as snacks, breakfast and lunch menus and physical activity. We are currently working in these areas, too."
Dr. Lisa Altshuler, director of the Kids Weight Down Program at Maimonides Medical Center, in New York City, said, "It's a necessary first step. But it is only a first step in creating a healthy environment for kids."
Altshuler thinks controlling soda sales is particularly important in middle schools. "These students are more likely to be making choices" about the foods they eat and drink, compared to elementary school students, she said.
Another expert agrees that the announcement should be greeted as a positive accomplishment.
"This agreement is very welcome news," said Dr. David L. Katz, an associate professor of public health at Yale University School of Medicine and director of the school's Prevention Research Center. "This is an important initiative, and should be seen as such, even by those who note that improving school nutrition will not solve the problem of epidemic childhood obesity," he said.
Coca-Cola views its involvement in the campaign as a way to identify itself with the fight against obesity. "We wanted to be part of the solution to childhood obesity," said company spokeswoman Diana Garza. "We wanted to be able to contribute toward the effort."
Schools are a unique environment, Garza added. "By combining our brand product offerings with some of the physical and nutrition educational programs we already support, we feel we are helping to put the schools at the forefront of the issue of childhood obesity," she added.
An estimated 16 percent of U.S. teens (ages 12 to 19) and 15.3 percent of children (ages 6 to 11) are overweight, according to the American Obesity Association. The childhood obesity epidemic is being blamed for an increase in serious health conditions, including type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. Overweight children can also struggle with problems of self-esteem.
According to the agreement, industry giants such as Cadbury Schweppes, Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, and the American Beverage Association will limit portion sizes and reduce the number of calories available to children during the school day. The deal was brokered by the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a joint effort of the President William J. Clinton Foundation and the American Heart Association.
Under the guidelines, only lower calorie and nutritious beverages will be sold to schools. The guidelines cap the number of calories available in beverages in schools at 100 calories per container, except for certain milks and juices whose nutritional value warrants the higher number of calories.
"Soda has been referred to as liquid candy, and this is rather apt," Katz said. "There is no nutritional value in soft drinks, and the regular varieties provide a considerable load of calories and a concentrated dose of sugar," he added.
The soda industry will work to apply the new standards to 75 percent of the nation's schools before the start of the 2008-2009 school year; full implementation is expected for the beginning of the 2009-2010 school year.
Elementary schools will only sell water, and 8-ounce servings of certain juices with no added sweeteners and servings of fat-free and low-fat regular and flavored milks. Middle schools will adopt the elementary school standards, but will be able to offer 10-ounce drinks.
High schools will have guidelines similar to middle schools but will also sell no-calorie and low-calorie drinks, such as bottled water, diet and unsweetened teas, diet sodas, fitness water, flavored water, seltzers and light juices, and low-calorie and regular sports drinks.
However, Katz thinks diet sodas remain a problem.
"Diet sodas may be free of calories and sugar but still provide an unsavory mix of chemicals and intense sweetness," he said. "Artificial sweeteners may propagate a sweet tooth, and there is no consistent evidence that they help with weight control."
Altshuler thinks sports drinks should not be available to students.
"Sports drinks are definitively a problem," she said. "Sports drinks certainly have a lot of sugar in them and have minimal nutritional value. They should be gotten out of the schools."
But Coca-Cola's Garza said sports drinks should be available to high school students. "We are trying to provide hydration beverages in packages that are conducive to the high school environment," she said.
John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, said the agreement would have virtually no impact on the $63 billion beverage industry's bottom line, The Associated Press reported.
"The sale of sugar-carbonated sodas in schools is a tiny, tiny part of their overall volume," Sicher said. "Financially, on the big companies, it will have virtually no impact."
Altshuler, while hailing the new agreement, said more needs to be done to promote better nutrition among America's schoolchildren.
"Even though soda will be available elsewhere, it is vital that it is removed from the school lunchroom," Altshuler said. "We have an obligation to remove items that are unhealthy. We need to use this issue to impress upon children not only that soda is not healthy, but open up the broader discussion on the need for responsible marketing and advertising. And not allow business deals to be created which will hurt our children --such as allowing beverage companies to purchase billboard space in gyms and on ball fields in exchange for helping to build those facilities," she added.
To learn more about childhood obesity, visit the American Obesity Association.