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Should High Schools Have Soda Machines?

Parents Debate the Issue in Focus Groups
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WebMD Health News

Sept. 30, 2004 -- With obesity and other health concerns in mind, some school systems are reconsidering whether students should have access to on-campus soda machines.

Soft drink consumption has soared among adolescents in the last 20 years, doubling among girls and tripling among boys. Coincidental with this increase has been the rise in childhood obesity.

Besides obesity, research has shown several possible health consequences from the sugary drinks, including dental cavities, disrupted sleep from caffeine, and impaired calcium absorption -- affecting bone health at a critical time of growth.

The increase in soft drink consumption has also been accompanied by a decrease in milk drinking, which also impacts bone health.

At least one school district -- Los Angeles Unified School district, the second largest school district in the U.S. -- now bans soft drink sales in all schools during the school day, according to Simone French, PhD, a professor in the University of Minnesota's epidemiology department, and colleagues.

Should that policy be applied elsewhere?

French and colleagues recently organized six focus groups to see what parents of high school students think about the issue.

They recruited 33 parents of high school students in suburban Minneapolis. Only one parent per child was allowed to attend. Almost all were from white, middle- to upper-middle class families.

Students' Choice

High school students can decide for themselves whether or not to drink soda, according to all the focus groups. Many parents saw the issue of soft drinks consumption as more a matter of personal choice, rather than an issue of a healthful school environment, the authors write.

Choosing whether to drink soft drinks is part of learning responsibility, the parents said. High school is a time where a child starts to make decisions and take more responsibility for their actions and choices. Making beverage choices was one way parents said they saw their teen taking responsibility.

Some said students will buy sodas elsewhere if they're not available at school, depriving the schools of an income source.

However, the parents wanted more "healthy" alternative drinks to be available.

Most parents supported limiting access to the machines, but they wanted regulations to be made locally, not at a state level.

"All groups agreed that drinking soft drinks, particularly in excess, has negative physical effects," write the researchers in the October issue of the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

While some parents expressed concerns about the health-related consequences of soft drink consumption, it wasn't a top health priority. Parents expressed major concerns about health-related consequences of the use of cigarettes, alcohol, drugs, and coffee in their children.

The study showed that many of the parents had little knowledge about the vending machines in their child's school. The researchers say the lack of knowledge reflects the low priority parents give to the issue of soft drink consumption.

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