The researchers conducted a self-reporting study of the consumption habits of about 1,500 6th and 7th grade students in 10 middle schools nationwide. They found that 71 percent of the children bought sugary beverages -- including soda, sweetened fruit drinks and iced tea -- from school vending machines. The students were found to be three times more likely to purchase a sugar-sweetened beverage than any other product.
"Because sugar-sweetened beverages are the largest single contributors to added sugar intake in the United States, reduction in their use has tremendous potential to curb intake of nonnutritive calories," wrote the researchers. "For example, the roughly 15 teaspoons of sugar in a 20-oz nondiet soda exceeded the entire daily limit for added sugar intake for most individuals recommended in the USDA's 1992 Food Guide Pyramid."
The researchers said that, while these beverages could be obtained from a number of sources, the "broad reach" of schools means that authorities should concentrate on them as a practical way of reducing added sugar intake.
A 2003 study suggests that this move would only have a limited impact, since it showed children obtained about half of the soft drinks they consume at home, and 22 percent at fast food restaurants. In view of this, lead researcher Dr. Jean Wiecha of the Harvard School of Public Health and her colleagues proposed an education campaign to encourage parents and children to identify where they are obtaining sugar-sweetened beverages, reduce their consumption, and replace them with healthy substitutes.
The study is adding fuel to a fire started by increasing evidence that vending machines in schools and the low-nutrient contents of their products are contributing to health concerns nationwide. Big-name beverage manufacturers have opposed this notion, consistently maintaining that the nation's obesity epidemic stems from a host of different sources, and that focusing on any one is not helpful.
The fight from industry giants has also overflowed into the marketing arena, as negative press for sweetened beverages has been met with an equal increase in advertising spending. In 2003, the biggest manufacturers -- Coca-Cola, PepsiCo and Cadbury-Schweppes -- spent more than $850 million on marketing their major brands in the United States alone, placing all of them in the top 100 corporate spenders on advertising in 2003.
An increasing number of states are considering bills that would limit soft drink availability in schools. By April 2005, 28 states had implemented some plan to restrict sales of foods that are not part of the USDA's school meals programs, and school districts that report having a no-carbonated-beverage policy for vending machines went up to 38 percent from 18 percent last year. Experts say the trend is likely to continue.
"If we are to have any chance at stemming the childhood obesity epidemic, soda vending machines must be immediately removed from public schools," said Mike Adams, author of "The Five Soft Drink Monsters," a guide on helping people quit soft drink addictions. "These sugar water products directly promote diabetes, obesity, learning disabilities and behavioral disorders.
"Trying to educate a generation of children who are hopped up on caffeine and sugar and then drugging them with amphetamines when they display concentration challenges is a societal failure of unprecedented scale," he said. "Through junk foods and pharmaceuticals, our pro-business society is destroying the health of an entire generation."