The Register-Herald, Beckley, West Virginia

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January 21, 2013

Industry group says it already limits high-calorie drinks in schools

CHARLESTON — For those concerned about caloric intake in the war against childhood obesity, the West Virginia Beverage Industry has a revelation — soft drinks with heavy concentrations of sugar aren’t inside school vending machines.

In fact, the high-calorie sodas have been absent a full decade.

Voluntarily, says Danielle Waltz Swann, a lobbyist for the West Virginia Beverage Association, the industry removed such drinks across America as the nation began to look at ways of improving the lifestyles of the nation’s school children.

“There haven’t been full calorie soft drinks in high schools in West Virginia for over 10 years,” she says.

And the move to get sugar out didn’t just stop with carbonated beverages, but all those others popular with children.

Swann says the industry partnered with the White House when Bill Clinton was president and the American Heart Association in tandem with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation and produced guidelines.

“When these guidelines were put together as a member of that group, the beverage industry voluntarily removed full calorie soft drinks from any level,” she said.

“They’ve been gone since those guidelines have been put in place.”

Earlier this month, an interims committee considered a bill that would remove sugar-laden beverages in all schools.

Swann says it is apparent the pushers of such a bill don’t understand that the industry has no beef about removing the high-calorie drinks.

“What’s in the (state) code isn’t quite as strong as what the school beverage guidelines are,” she said.

“The beverage industry would be fine with codifying those guidelines. We would voluntarily do that because that’s what we’re doing anyway. We’ve cut calories by 90 percent since the implementation of these guidelines.”

Obesity and its inherent threats to health — heart trouble and diabetes — remain an issue for lawmakers, especially those involved with education issues.

But where does exercise, or the lack thereof, among this generation fit into the equation?

Two generations ago, students came home, threw their books on a couch and went outdoors to play until called into supper, or it grew too dark for outside play. Today, the exercise for many is limited to forefingers and thumbs, whiling away the hours on video games and computers.

Swann agrees that a sedentary lifestyle cannot be overlooked.

“When you look at the statistics, we’ve cut calories by 90 percent and the problem is still there,” she said.

In her own childhood, Swann walked 2 miles in the Weirton area just to reach a school bus stop. In the generation preceding hers, bus stops were few and far between, since most students walked or were counted absent.

And those same children downed one sugar-heavy Coke or Pepsi after another, munched on candy bars, and gobbled up hot dogs, milkshakes and thick french fries with abandon.

“We shoveled the snow and you walked to the bus stop,” Swann said.

One factor the beverage industry wants to zero in on is an overall healthy lifestyle that includes physical activity, the lobbyist said.

Swann emphasized she doesn’t consider herself an expert on the role of exercise.

Yet, she says, “I think statistics would show we do have an unhealthy lifestyle. What we need to teach kids is to make healthy choices.

“We need to teach them are better things for you to have when this is available. By just taking things away from them, we’re not teaching them how to be better. What society think, unfortunately now, with everything, I think is there is an easy fix.”

Swann sees the obesity problem as a cultural one and banning certain soft drinks is not a quick fix.

“How do we teach people to be better?” she asks.

“How do we teach them to be more healthy? It requires more work than just making one decision.”

Swann says the beverage industry has gone beyond merely altering the drinks available to students.

“A lot of these companies have invested in fitness equipment in schools,” she said.

“A lot of these companies have paid for scoreboard and funded intra-mural teams. These companies do good business and want to do the right thing. With the beverage industry and others involved, I think what makes sense is to get people to the table and talk about what we can do to be part of the solution. The beverage industry has done that. It will continue to do that.”

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