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Banning sugary drinks from schools does not decrease consumption, study finds.

Sugar can be a tough habit for kids to kick, and even a school ban on all sweetened beverages does not necessarily reduce students’ overall consumption of sugary drinks, according to a new nationwide study.

University of Illinois researchers combed through data on nearly 7,000 middle-schoolers from public schools in 40 states and found little differences in sweetened beverage consumption, regardless of whether the students attended schools that prohibited sweet drinks or not.

Approximately 85 percent of the students reported consuming sugar-sweetened beverages at least once in the past week, whether they attended a school that banned all sweetened drinks, or just prohibited soda, or had no ban at all, the researchers concluded.


“Kids are smart and know how to work the system,” said Daniel Taber, a post doctoral research associate at the University of Illinois at Chicago, and lead author of the study that is published today online in Archives of Pediatrics & Adolescent Medicine.

“Schools can help, but school is only one aspect of a child’s environment,” Taber said. “Children can get [sweetened drinks] from convenience stores, fast food outlets and at home.”

The authors used a nationwide database that tracked students starting from kindergarten. They examined the same group of students in fifth and again in eighth grade, from 2004 to 2007.

The students filled out questionnaires that asked about the types of beverages they could purchase in school and how many times in the past seven days they had consumed soda, sports drinks, or fruit drinks that were not 100 percent fruit juice.

The authors compared the results from states that banned only soda in schools to those that had no prohibitions and found few differences among the students’ answers.

Among students in states that banned all sugary drinks in schools, there was a modest decrease in access to the sweetened beverages at school.


Angie Cradock, a senior research scientist at the Harvard School of Public Health, said the results are in line with other nationwide studies that have found sugary drinks to be a staple in children’s daily diets.

Cradock lead a study, published in August, that found that the policy of restricting the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages in Boston Public Schools appeared to be paying off. Consumption dropped among high school students from 1.7 servings a day on average in 2004, to 1.4 servings in 2006.

The Harvard researchers calculated that the 3.8 ounce decline in sugary beverages translated to a drop in calorie consumption of about 45 calories a day.

Cradock’s team was able to pinpoint a measurable impact from a ban on sugary drinks because, she said, her team was able to ask more specific, detailed questions about the children’s habits, compared to the questionnaire in the database the scientists used in the latest study.

“If they would have had a finer measure of consumption, they may have seen something different,” Cradock said. “We were looking at small changes in daily consumption.”

The American Beverage Association, a trade association, issued a statement today saying the Illinois researchers’ findings do not reflect signficant changes since 2007.

“By looking at data from 2004 and 2007, this study ignores the dramatic changes in the school beverage landscape achieved by our industry over the last five years, making it effectively useless,” the statement said.


“In fact, by offering only juice, low-fat milk and water in elementary and middle schools, with the addition of lower-calorie and portion-controlled beverages in high schools, the signatory companies drove an 88 percent reduction in beverage calories shipped to schools since 2004,” it said.

Sugary drinks and high-calorie, fat-laden snacks will be banned from vending machines and a la carte cafeteria lines in all of Massachusetts’ public schools in the 2012-2013 school year, under rules adopted in July by state regulators.

The new rules reflect concerns about bulging waistlines among the state’s children and adolescents - roughly one-third are overweight or obese.

Studies have linked even moderate consumption of soft drinks to substantially elevated risk of heart disease and diabetes. Harvard researchers have shown, for instance, that a 20-ounce soft drink contains the equivalent of 17 teaspoons of sugar.

Kay Lazar can be reached at klazar@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @GlobeKayLazar.