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Some Musings on School Soda Bans

This week, various media outlets reported on a study which concluded that school soda bans are ineffective; or, as as The Chicago Tribute put it — ‘School Soda Bans Don’t Cut Kids’ Consumption’. This not only frames the issue incorrectly, but also blames “ineffective bans” for problems they were never intended to correct.

According to the study in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine, “among eighth graders, state bans on all sugar-sweetened drinks in schools meant fewer kids reported buying the drinks there — but it didn’t change how many of them said they drank soda or sports drinks regularly.”

My response: “so?”. Schools are only responsible for what happens on school grounds.  The fact that children are otherwise barraged with soda advertisements (and that these drinks are artificially cheap) goes beyond the scope of this particular intervention.

The goal of these laws is to take away the opportunity for sugar-sweetened drinks to be consumed during school hours.  And, in that, they are successful.

The “soda ban” issue is problematic on another level. While some states ban all sugar-sweetened drinks (my policy of choice), other have soda-only bans. In other words, soda is not sold on school grounds, but other sweetened beverages (that are essentially flat soda) get a green light.

Replacing a can of Coke with a bottle of sugary Snapple is not an improvement. Neither is replacing a can of Coke with a can of Diet Coke. This is why it is crucial to frame the issue not as “soda” consumption, but “sweetened/sugary beverage” consumption. I use both terms on purpose; this way, everything from chocolate milk to “100% apple juice” to diet soda to Gatorade falls under the same umbrella.

The article quotes Daniel Taber of he University of Illinois at Chicago, who worked on the study. He says: “I wouldn’t see this as a failure, it’s just that that’s not going to be enough.”

I don’t entirely disagree with that statement; he is right, “soda bans” in and of themselves are not enough. However, I — and, I believe, many of my colleagues — never viewed them as “the answer”, but rather as one of many tactics needed to help alleviate a larger problem.

What this study makes clear — and what I hope lawmakers take away — is that comprehensive “bans” on all sugary/sweetened beverages cut down on children’s consumption of these drinks during school hours.  The fact that children drink soda and other similar beverages at home or on the weekends is a separate issue.

The larger problem here, of course, is the presence of vending machines in schools. While outside the scope of this particular study on sweetened beverages, I object to the sale of even bottled water at schools.  Whatever happened to just having water fountains?

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6 Comments

  1. Abalone said on November 9th, 2011

    “This is why it is crucial to frame the issue not as “soda” consumption, but “sweetened beverage” consumption.”

    I would suggest a better demarcation than “sweetened beverage” is “sugary beverage.” Sugar is sugar, after all, even if it’s not added, as is the case with fruit juice (or even milk). The obvious first step in reducing calories is to quit getting them from beverages and save them for something one chews. I’d set a carb limit.

    Whatever happened to water fountains?

  2. Andy Bellatti said on November 9th, 2011

    That is a good point. My definition of “sweetened beverage” includes juice, but I can see how it can be misconstrued (technically, it isn’t “sweetened” as much as it is just sugary). I’ll make an edit to the post to reflect that.

  3. Lauren Slayton said on November 10th, 2011

    I totally agree that schools control what happens in schools and kids may say they still buy them but less access is best. As I said on twitter, if kids smoke outside of school should the school them revoke smoking bans? No. As for soda vrs snapple, I think soda is terrible and though sugary wouldn’t have as much of a problem with 100% juices but if they all go, kids will be fine.

  4. BrettFutureRD said on November 14th, 2011

    Is there a reason why you decided to avoid talking about why soda and other sugar sweetened beverages are being banned? The initiative is to reduce school’s contribution to childhood obesity. But how effective is a child’s shape or size in predicting adverse health outcomes? Is a child’s shape necessarily a good predictor of the success of failure of their diets? I knew plenty of thin kids growing up that drank just as much sweetened beverages and junk food as the heavier kids if not more, but were not criticized about their diets.

    Also, I feel you can’t talk about banning vending machines without talking about a replacement for revenue for schools. It’s hard to get a school’s support to get rid of vending machines without talking about replacing the revenue they are going to lose. No doubt the existence of vending machines creates toxic food environments for kids by giving them uncontrolled access to food. This is a problem even if you replaced the current selection of Pepsi, Cheetos and Arizona Iced tea, with water, apples and carrots.

    Regardless, as long as long as the focus is going to be on obesity and not on reestablishing healthy eating behaviors, physical activity,and acceptance of ALL body shapes and sizes there is going to be an endless fight between those who want to ban and tax “bad” foods, and those with private interests in making money off those foods.

  5. Andy Bellatti said on November 14th, 2011

    Brett,

    That goes beyond the scope of this post; this post was specifically about soda bans being labeled ‘ineffective’ because children still drink soda at home or on the weekends. This is, after all, a blog post on that issue — not a book on vending machines in schools (where one could truly explore multiple angles).

    I don’t think you are very familiar with my work or Small Bites; otherwise, you would know that I do not appreciate obesity-centric ‘solutions’ since, as you point out, drinking soda is problematic regardless of one’s size. I have, on multiple occasions, pointed out that a higher risk of obesity should not be the sole concern with soda, but rather the lack of nutrition, increased risk for kidney stones, effects on bone health, high sugar intake, etc. That said, even if the ‘soda in schools’ issue stems from an obesity-centric model, it nevertheless has other effects (such as reducing added sugar intake in all children!).

    Framing the revenue discussion around vending machines (no matter how healthy) is misguided. It is important to step outside that hegemonic viewpoint and see other ways in which schools can raise funds (let’s not forget that vending machines are a relatively new concept in schools; in many places, they didn’t pop up until the mid to late ’90s).

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