Banning sugar-filled sodas from American schools as an effort to combat childhood obesity doesn’t reduce overall consumption levels of sweetened beverages, research found.
In U.S. states that banned only soda, about 30 percent of middle-school students still purchased sugary drinks like sports and fruit beverages at school, similar to states that had no policy, according to a study released online today in the Archives of Pediatrics and Adolescent Medicine. In states that banned all sugar-sweetened beverages, students still consumed the drinks outside of school, the researchers said.
Over the past 25 years, children have gotten more of their calories from sugary beverages and consumption of the drinks has been associated with childhood obesity and weight gain, the authors said. Today’s study is the first to look at whether efforts by states to curb these drinks really works, said Daniel Taber, the lead study author.
“The laws did what they were designed to do because they were designed to reduce access in schools,” Taber, a post doctoral research associate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, said today in a telephone interview. “Schools are only one aspect of a child’s environment. The laws have some positive effects but schools can’t do it alone. They are going to need help from other sectors to reduce overall consumption.”
Studies have shown that about 13 percent of the average teenagers’ total daily calories come from sugary drinks, according to a statement by Bridging the Gap, a research program of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, which partially funded today’s study. The Institute of Medicine recommended in 2007 that all sugar-sweetened drinks be banned from schools to prevent health problems.
About 17 percent of U.S. children and adolescents are obese, triple the rate from the previous generation, according to the Atlanta-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Overweight or obese people have a greater risk of diabetes, heart attacks and strokes.
At the start of the 2009-2010 school year, 14 U.S. states banned soda in school vending machines and 19 banned it from lunch lines in school cafeterias, according to data from Bridging the Gap, headed by researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago and the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor. Six states banned all sugary drinks in school vending machines and six banned them in cafeteria lines. Twenty-five states had no ban on sugary drinks in school vending machines and 22 states had cafeteria restrictions.
Researchers used data from the Early Childhood Longitudinal Study -- Kindergarten Class for 2003-2004 and 2006-2007 to determine students’ access to sugar-sweetened drinks from fifth grade to eighth grade. Children in these grades are generally 10 to 14 years old. They included results from 6,900 students in 40 states. They also analyzed state laws and regulations for the sale of drinks in middle schools for the 2006-2007 school year.
Of the students, 2,890 were in states that had no ban on the sale of sweetened drinks in school, 2,840 lived in states that banned only soda, while 1,170 lived in states that banned all sugary drinks in school.
They found no difference in access to sugary beverages for students in states that banned soda versus those that had no laws governing drinks in schools. For states that banned all sugary drinks, 15 fewer students per 100 had access to the beverages, Taber said.
“Our study adds to a growing body of literature that suggests that to be effective, school-based policy interventions need to be comprehensive,” the authors wrote. “States that only ban soda, while allowing other beverages with added caloric sweeteners, appear to be no more successful at reducing adolescents’ sugar-sweetened beverage access and purchasing within school than states that take no action at all.”
The research also showed that in 2006-2007, about 85 percent of the eighth-graders said they consumed sugary drinks at least once a week regardless of the state policy and 26 percent to 33 percent reported drinking them daily. More students said they had the drinks daily in states that banned all sugary drinks in schools than those states that had no beverage policy.
The study doesn’t reflect changes made in the school beverage landscape since 2007, said Susan Neely, president and chief executive officer of the American Beverage Association, an industry trade group based in Washington.
“By offering only juice, low-fat milk and water in elementary and middle schools, with the addition of lower-calorie and portion-controlled beverages in high schools, the signatory companies drove an 88 percent reduction in beverage calories shipped to schools since 2004,” she said.
The study also found that some students in states that banned all sugary drinks still reported access to those drinks in school. Taber said the student reports may be inaccurate or schools aren’t complying with the law and more research is needed.
“This study tells us that it will take comprehensive beverage policies to create a healthier school environment and decrease the amount of sugary beverages students purchase at school,” said Frank Chaloupka, co-director of Bridging the Gap and a professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, in a statement. “At the same time, it underscores the importance of policies that extend beyond schools to discourage consumption of sugary beverages - and encourage children to purchase and drink healthy beverages like water, low-fat milk and 100 percent juice.”