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Who Knew? Beverage Makers Really Did Cut Back on Soda in Schools

The beverage industry's report this week on its promise to get healthier beverages into schools represents a surprising accomplishment -- particularly when other sectors of the food industry have done pathetically little to follow through on their own pledges to limit their marketing to kids.

Four years ago, the American Beverage Association, which represents Coke (KO), Pepsi (PEP), Dr. Pepper Snapple (DPS) and their bottlers, laid out guidelines for how they would cut back on sales of sugary soda in school vending machines and replace them with more water, juice and milk. They promised to get all soda and sugared beverages (except flavored milk) out of elementary and middle schools and to dramatically shift the mix in high schools.

Critics rolled their eyes at such pronouncements, but, lo and behold, the beverage companies pulled it off. If the ABA's data is to be believed -- and there's no reason to assume it's not -- high school is a much healthier place than it used to be, at least in beverage terms. For years, regular soda was the drink of choice for high schoolers, representing 47 percent of beverages sold from vending machines in 2004. Now it's just 6.6 percent.

Instead, water has replaced soda as the top choice, going from 12 percent of purchases to 39 percent. (Two caveats here: "water" includes flavored and sometimes artificially sweetened waters, and the number two and three categories in high school are the nutritionally dubious sports drinks at 24 percent and diet soda at 16 percent.)

Nonetheless, the shift is still a major PR win for the beverage industry, which has been under attack from all corners lately because soda is exhibit A in the case of runaway childhood obesity. The ABA's latest report doesn't make soda any less of an insulin roller coaster ride, but it does help position soda makers in a less villainous light. Which will come in handy in the war against two of the things they fear most -- soda taxes and a complete removal of vending machines from schools.

Coke and Pepsi are pathologically opposed to any sort of soda tax, but a number of cash-strapped municipalities and states think it's a great idea, New York state and New York City foremost among them. On Monday, New York health commissioner Richard Daines came out swinging. "The dramatic underpricing of sugar-sweetened beverages, their widespread availability, and the ceaseless marketing of these products constitute a stumbling block to good health and are a clear and present danger to the future of our children," he said.

At least now soda makers can point to an example of how their marketing isn't always "ceaseless," a case made even stronger by the fact that bottling companies and beverage manufacturers appear to have taken a significant business hit -- shipments of all beverages in schools are down a remarkable 72 percent.

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