Under pressure from proliferating regulations and threatened litigation, the major soft drink companies have agreed to stop selling regular soda in elementary, middle, and high schools. Under the deal, brokered by the William J. Clinton Foundation and announced today, only water, low-fat milk, and fruit juice will be sold in elementary and middle schools; high school students will also be able to buy diet soda and sports drinks. A spokesman for Bill Clinton calls the deal "a bold and sweeping step that industry and childhood obesity advocates have decided to take together." The president of the American Heart Association says it's "the beginning of a major effort to modify childhood obesity at the level of the school systems."
Yet it's hard to see how these changes can reasonably be expected to have a significant effect on kids' weight. To begin with, fruit juices have just as many calories as regular soda; so do low-fat (as opposed to fat-free) milk and many sports drinks. If the concern is how many calories kids are ingesting (as opposed to, say, possible vitamin C deficiency), substituting orange juice for Coke does not accomplish anything. I'm not sure why diet soda, a close substitute for regular soda with no calories, will be limited to high schools, but that choice makes no sense if the aim is reducing calorie intake.
Even if the only beverages sold in schools had zero calories, I'm skeptical that the upshot would be measurably thinner students. They would still be able to bring the beverages of their choice to school, and their off-campus calorie consumption (i.e., the vast majority of their calorie consumption) would be entirely unaffected. In short, pulling corn-syrup-sweetened soda from school vending machines, like eliminating cigarette billboards, will make people feel good, but it will not have a noticeable impact on overall consumption.