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Banning Soda in Schools Doesn’t Work

State bans on sugar-sweetened drinks in middle schools didn’t have much impact on kids’ overall consumption.

Daniel R. Taber, PhD, MPH, of the University of Illinois at Chicago, and colleagues reported that, although the ban significantly cut down on student-reported access at school, about 85% of students reported having at least one soda or other sweet drink in the prior week whether they could get the beverages at school or not. Bans on soda only had even less impact.

These results from surveys at schools across 40 states appeared online in the Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

“School is only one aspect of a child’s environment,” Taber’s group noted, “and youth have proven to be very adept at compensating for individual changes to their environment.”

The Institute of Medicine and other organizations have urged a universal ban on selling or providing sweetened beverages at school, with the rationale that limiting access at school should reduce overall consumption because students spend a large portion of their day there.

But students who reported at least daily consumption actually slightly increased their intake when the drinks were banned at school, suggesting that they more than compensated with drinks purchased at convenience stores and other locations, the researchers pointed out.

To see how effective the various state policies have been, the group analyzed questionnaire responses from a larger longitudinal study following a nationally-representative cohort of kindergartners. Altogether, 6,900 fifth-graders were surveyed in the spring of 2004 and again in eighth grade in 2007 at public schools across 40 states. Banning only soda appeared to have been ineffective in cutting down on sugar-sweetened beverage consumption.

In-school access to sports drinks, fruit drinks, and other sweetened drinks came out at an identical 66.6% in states that banned only soda and in those without any beverage policy.

The proportion of students who reported buying these drinks was similar too, at 28.9% and 26% in the two policy groups, respectively.

The numbers were lower, though, in states that banned all sugar-sweetened drinks, with 14.9 percentage points fewer students reporting access at school and 7.3 percentage points fewer reporting purchase over the prior week compared with those in states with no policy (both P<0.001).

Only 2.8% of fifth graders reported daily purchase of sweetened drinks at school and no significant differences appeared between state policies on this measure. However, total consumption — whether in school, at home, or elsewhere — showed no significant differences between policy groups, except that daily intake of sugary drinks actually was higher where banned at school (5.8 percentage points higher prevalence, P<0.05).

These results add to the growing body of evidence that school-based policy interventions must be comprehensive if they are to be effective, the researchers concluded.

Simply replacing soda with sports drinks or other sugary drinks wouldn’t be expected to have much impact on obesity, because even 100% fruit juice has as many calories as other sugar-sweetened beverages, they noted.

Practice Pearls:
  • Point out however, that students have access outside the school environment and this study suggests that total sugar sweetened drink intake was not affected by school policies.
  • Note that state policies that limit all sugar-sweetened beverages in schools effectively produce positive changes in the school environment.

Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine Oct. 2011 Taber DR, et al “Banning all sugar-sweetened beverages in middle schools: reduction of in-school access and purchasing but not overall consumption” Arch Pediatr Adolesc Med 2011; DOI: 10.1001/archpediatrics.2011.200.