With President Clinton standing at its side, the American Beverage Association announced today that it has successfully reduced the calories consumed by kids, per day, at school, from their members' carbonated drinks. (Read the report here.) Or, rather, that kids may have consumed 88% fewer soda-related calories per day than they did just five years ago. 


The removal of full-calorie soft drinks and other beverages not permitted under the guidelines, coupled with a major swing toward lower-calorie beverages, has resulted in an 88% percent decrease in total beverage calories shipped to schools between the first half of the 2004-05 school year and the first half of the 2009-10 school year.

First, this is good news, assuming that kids aren't consuming those calories elsewhere. Second, it tracks with the finding that the growth rate for childhood obesity is slowing -- a development that has given policymakers hope that the rates can actually be reversed. It is obviously in the ABA's interest to proactively and prophylactically respond to the national anti-obesity crusades -- they represent companies that have a product to sell -- be it water, fruit juices, sodas or energy drinks. How did the ABA measure this decline? They (supervised by the Clinton Foundation) asked an independent firm to survey 12 bottlers, representing about 90% of the school market.

A footnote in their report says: "To the extent possible, these bottlers also reported on schools and school districts without contracts." Look closely at the claim here: it is calories shipped to schools, not actual calories consumed by kids. There are caveats: the surveys did not reflect the number of caloried sodas shipped to athletic facilities, or for fundraising events, or in faculty lounges. (Schools themselves have resisted the banning of sports drink vending machines from their gyms and stadiums, and it's become an industry talking point that taking vending machines out of schools would deprive schools of an important source of revenue.) But to the extent that the surveys are valuable, they do show that the bottlers, usually independent from the beverage companies, are shipping fewer sodas and more water, relative to before, to middle, elementary and high schools.

That consumption of sugary beverages has contributed to the obesity epidemic is clear, but precisely how and why, and how to separate out that contribution from the multitudes is difficult. It's true that the industry, as of several decades ago, was much less willing to respond to its critics and still fights -- or negotiates -- with Congress and regulatory agencies at every turn. But the beverage industry has changed, too, and the profit margins from sugary drinks are not nearly as large as they were. Coca-Cola, for example, makes a nice amount of money from its water sales. Indeed, one reason why Coke has been buying its bottling companies -- the company wants to be greener, wants to take vending machines out of schools, and the bottlers are often fiercely opposed. Coke knows that if you own the bottling system you can control the means of production and the message. The latest research suggests that sugary-sweetened beverages precipitated at least 75,000 cases of diabetes and 14,000 cases of coronary heart disease from 1990 to 2000. The beverage industry knows this, and they know that regulators and politicians know this, and they're figuring out how to stay ahead of regulation that cripples them in the future.


Note: Coke is an advertiser on The Atlantic.com. That has nothing to do with this.

Thumbnail photo credit: JoelZimmer/flickr

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