Coke to change how it sells soft drinks in schools

Wednesday, March 14th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

WASHINGTON (AP) _ Coca-Cola Co. says it will change the way it markets soft drinks at schools. The company's action comes in the face of threats of broader government regulation and scientific evidence that its products can lead to health problems.

The Atlanta-based soft drink maker said Wednesday that it will begin loading healthier drinks into vending machines alongside sodas, covering up giant logos and advocating nonexclusive deals between bottlers and school districts.

The announcement comes a month after the Agriculture Department criticized schools that raise money by selling sodas and snacks on campus, saying they were sending mixed messages about nutrition. The department asked Congress for authority to regulate what foods and beverages can be sold in schools.

Coke said it will provide a larger variety of healthful drinks in machines, urge local bottlers to let schools limit the sale of soft drinks at lunch, ask bottlers to stop requiring exclusive ``pouring contracts'' with schools and put ``noncommercial signage'' on school vending machines.

An estimated 200 school districts nationwide have contracts with soft drink companies that give them exclusive rights to sell their products in schools. Such contracts have become a popular sources of income for many cash-strapped schools.

Phillip Gainous, principal of Montgomery Blair High School in Silver Spring, Md., said the school's 30-plus vending machines provide ``well in excess of $100,000 a year,'' which sends teachers to training sessions, buys floor-buffing machines and lets the school update its computer network.

Coke's move is unlikely to have a large effect on its sales. It said middle- and high-school sales represent less than 1 percent of its total.

Larry Jabbonsky, a spokesman for Pepsi Cola, based in Purchase, N.Y., said the company already is pursuing many of the same ideas, including testing more healthful beverages, such as fruit or milk smoothies, for school sales.

Jeffrey Dunn, president of Coca-Cola Americas, said Coke plans to have such products in place in many of its 100,000 school vending machines by September. He said the effort was independent of recent talk in Congress about imposing limits on school soft drink sales.

School nutrition experts have urged the government to restrict the sale of soft drinks and snacks in schools.

The Agriculture Department, which already requires school lunches and breakfasts to meet nutritional standards, told Congress last month it should have legal authority to set nutrition standards for foods and beverages sold in schools. It would take congressional action for the department to begin regulating what is served outside cafeterias.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., plans to introduce legislation this week to allow the department to restrict snack and soft drink sales.

``I'm not so concerned about who is selling these empty calories to kids at lunchtime,'' Leahy said Tuesday. ``I'm more concerned about who's buying them. With all the money we spend on nutrition matters, I want the kids to at least eat the food we provide to them.''

A U.S. study published last month in The Lancet, a leading British medical journal, said an extra soft drink a day gives a child a 60 percent greater chance of becoming obese.

A recent report by the Center for Science in the Public Interest said drinking sodas also puts teen-agers at a higher risk of osteoporosis, tooth decay and other conditions.

Several analysts said public pressure was bound to put an end to exclusive ``pouring contracts'' between soft drink makers and schools without cutting off sales outright.

John Sicher, publisher of Beverage Digest, an industry newsletter, said the exclusive deals, though beneficial to schools, ``have generated some difficult publicity.''