Stateline Story

Legislators Weighing School Soda Bans

  • March 07, 2003
  • By Erin Madigan

Pumping quarters into the school soda vending machine isn't the kind of physical activity Maine state Rep. Sean Faircloth wants to encourage.

The Democratic lawmaker is one of a number of legislators throughout the country who have introduced measures to ban soda from school vending machines. His aim: to curb the rising rate of childhood obesity.

This isn't the first year legislators have tried to get sugary drinks out of schools, said Mike Griffith, a policy analyst at the Education Commission of the States (ECS), a non-partisan think tank in Denver. Griffith said the legislative efforts are spurred by worries about student health. These are based on medical reports of poor nutrition, lack of physical activity and health problems related to childhood obesity, such as Type II diabetes.

But at a time when cash-strapped states are cutting education budgets, opponents of vending machine restrictions say schools need the soda revenue more than ever. In many districts, profits from soda sales help pay for music programs, sports teams, field trips and other extracurricular activities.

"It's a matter of educating people. Do you want to pay for a band uniform now or a root canal later? That's the kind of choices we're making," said Minnesota state Rep. Gene Pelowski (D-Winona), who's sponsoring a similar soda ban.

But the soft drink industry, which opposes statewide mandates, says the legislation won't prevent childhood obesity.

"Obesity is a complex problem that cannot be solved by eliminating one food or drink from a person's diet. (Bans) take the form of unfunded mandates because they eliminate revenue without allowing the schools a way to get it back," said Sean McBride, a spokesman for the National Soft Drink Association (NSDA).

Faircloth, who is sponsoring a package of four bills to promote health in schools, and other lawmakers are trying to find alternative sources of revenue.

One component of Faircloth's plan is to replace soda with milk, water and fruit juice so schools can still reap profits from business partnerships with vending companies.

"I think the soft drink industry's opposition has to do with using school vending machines as a tool to build brand loyalty with kids," Faircloth told Stateline.org.

Many states regulate soda machine sales through their departments of education or health. Since 2001, over 75 bills that would ban such sales have been introduced in 28 states.

A number of local school districts have enacted bans, but California is the only state to enact a statewide ban, which was signed by Gov. Gray Davis (D) in Oct. 2001. The law, which would ban soda sales in elementary schools, has yet to be implemented because it also established nutritional standards and has requirements for school lunch funding that have not been met.

State Sen. Deborah Oritz (D-Sacramento) is sponsoring legislation to expand the ban to all public school campuses by 2007.