Arnie takes on drinks giants

5th August 2005 at 01:00

California governor Schwarzenegger steps up ban on sale of fizzy drinks in schools, reports Stephen Phillips

California governor Arnold Schwarzenegger is championing proposals to outlaw sales of soft drinks during school hours in every school in America's most populous state.

California banned the sale of fizzy drinks in primary and middle schools in 2003. But now, in what would be the strictest US ban yet, the governor has proposed this law be extended so that drinks can only be sold at secondary school in the half-hour before and after lessons.

The bill is the latest salvo in a US-wide legislative offensive on the sale of soft drinks and junk food in schools amid escalating student obesity.

Since January, at least 14 new school nutrition laws have been passed, provoking a flurry of resistance from embattled drinks firms. Last week, industry representatives announced they were considering unprecedented plans to voluntarily stop selling soft drinks in America's primary and middle schools.

Jim Finkelstein of the American Beverage Association said: "We don't accept there's anything wrong with the products, but we hear parents say they'd rather not see them sold to younger children."

But Marion Nestle, a New York University public health professor, derided the self-policing offer as a sop to "head off" more external regulation.

Margo Wootan, director of nutrition policy at advocacy group, the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said giving up primary and middle school sales would be relatively painless compared with the lucrative and strategic secondary schools market. "The industry is figuring out the least it has to give away to hang onto secondary schools," she said. Firms have vigorously resisted a fizzy drink ban in secondary schools, to which they pay millions of dollars annually for vending machine contracts so they can reach impressionable, brand-conscious teenagers.

Last month, Connecticut's governor vetoed a similar secondary soft drinks ban to that under consideration in California, amid intense lobbying by the industry representatives led by one of the governor's former aides.

And earlier this year, lobbyists successfully watered down a proposed ban on soft drink sales in Arkansas secondary schools to allow half of vending machine stocks to be fizzy drinks.

Firms are loath to further substitute healthier alternatives such as fruit juices and bottled water in their product lines for more lucrative fizzy drinks, said Ms Wootan. "Juice isn't as profitable as soda (fizzy drink) because you have to put real food into it, and water is harder to brand."

US secondary students typically down 1.5 to two cans of fizzy drink daily, with many consuming three or more - drawing 15 per cent of their calories from soft drinks. Recent figures suggest 16 per cent of US students are overweight compared with 5 per cent in the late 1960s.

Facing mounting hostility in schools, drinks firms are trying to shift the focus of the obesity debate from consumption to exercise, said Professor Nestle. This month, Coca-Cola will launch a $4m (pound;2.25m) health campaign in US schools, featuring Tour de France legend Lance Armstrong.

"Coke and Pepsi are pulling out the stops," said Ms Wootan, "but I predict that five years from now there won't be any soda left in schools. Momentum is building."

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