Cadbury and Coca-Cola take fizzy drinks out of US schools

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Coca-Cola, Pepsi and Cadbury Schweppes have agreed to stop selling fizzy drinks in US schools, to try to head off criticism over their role in rising childhood obesity.

The companies' image has soured in recent years, turning them from much-loved purveyors of treats to public health enemy number one. So yesterday, the industry signed up to a voluntary ban brokered by the former president Bill Clinton. Primary schoolchildren will have access only to low-fat milk and unsweetened flavoured water, while secondary schools will sell only diet versions of popular drinks such as Coke and Pepsi.

Growing numbers of school districts and state legislatures have proposed to sweep away banks of vending machines dispensing unhealthy food and drinks, and the new rules will at least enable manufacturers to maintain some degree of influence. Health campaigners say schools feel bound to accept vending machines on site to boost their income.

The agreement with the American Beverage Association, which counts all the major players among its members, will cover almost 90 per cent of American schools and some 35 million children. It goes much further than the industry's first proposals, last year, that full-fat fizzy drinks be capped at 50 per cent of vending machine products.

Dawn Hudson, the chief executive of Pepsi-Cola North America, said drinks companies were only one player in the childhood obesity problem. "It's a much broader issue then what students eat and drink. It is also about what they learn and what they do. This deal provides schools with real-world, common-sense solutions that give students the tools they need to lead healthier lives. We're delighted that our products are part of the equation."

School sales account for only a sliver of the $63bn (£43bn) drinks market but manufacturers are increasingly concerned about the backlash against fizzy drinks. Coca-Cola warned in its annual report this year that concern about obesity had become a legal and public relations problem.

President Clinton paid tribute to the leaders of the big companies involved in yesterday's deal. "These industry leaders recognise that childhood obesity is a problem and have stepped up to help solve it. There is a lot of work to be done to turn this problem around but this is a big step in the right direction and it will help improve the diet of millions of students across the country."