By SAMANTHA GROSS
NEW YORK (AP) - The nation's largest beverage distributors have agreed to halt nearly all soda sales to public schools, according to a deal announced Wednesday by the William J. Clinton Foundation.
Under the agreement, the companies have agreed to sell only water, unsweetened juice and low-fat milks to elementary and middle schools, said Jay Carson, a spokesman for former President Bill Clinton. Diet sodas would be sold only to high schools.
Cadbury Schweppes PLC (CSG), Coca-Cola Co. (KO), PepsiCo Inc. (PEP) and the American Beverage Association have all signed onto the deal, Carson said, adding that the companies serve "the vast majority of schools." The American Beverage Association represents the majority of school vending bottlers.
The deal follows a wave of regulation by school districts and state legislatures to cut back on student consumption of soda amid reports of rising childhood obesity rates. Soda has been a particular target of those fighting obesity because of its caloric content and popularity among children.
"It's a bold and sweeping step that industry and childhood obesity advocates have decided to take together," Carson said.
A man who answered the phone at Cadbury Schweppes' London headquarters said no one was available for comment. Calls seeking comment from the other distributors were not immediately returned early Wednesday.
Nearly 35 million students nationwide will be affected by the deal, The Alliance for a Healthier Generation said in a news release. The group, a collaboration between Clinton's foundation and the American Heart Association, helped broker the deal.
"This is really the beginning of a major effort to modify childhood obesity at the level of the school systems," said Robert H. Eckel, president of the American Heart Association.
Under the agreement, high schools will still be able to purchase drinks such as diet and unsweetened teas, diet sodas, sports drinks, flavored water, seltzer and low-calorie sports drinks from distributors.
School sales of those kinds of drinks have been on the rise in recent years, while regular soda purchases by students have been falling, according to an ABA report released in December. But regular soda is still the most popular drink among students, accounting for 45 percent of beverages sold in schools in 2005, the report said.
The agreement applies to beverages sold for use on school grounds during the regular and extended school day, Carson said. Sales during after-school activities such as clubs, yearbook, band and choir practice will be affected by the new regulations. But sales at events such as school plays, band concerts and sporting events, where adults make up a significant portion of the audience, won't be affected, he said.
How quickly the changes take hold will depend in part on individual school districts' willingness to alter existing contracts, the alliance said. The companies will work to implement the changes at 75 percent of the nation's public schools by the 2008-2009 school year, and at all public schools a year later.
Many school districts around the country have already begun to replace soda and candy in vending machines with healthier items, and dozens of states have considered legislation on school nutrition this year.
The agreement follows an August decision by the American Beverage Association to adopt a policy limiting soft drinks in high schools to no more than 50 percent of the selections in vending machines. That recommendation was not binding.