While the placing of soft drinks vending machines in schools is a contentious issue in many countries, the decision by the French government to remove machines from all middle and secondary schools is an unprecedented step. Annette Sessions examines the French decision and the soft drinks industry's attempts to forestall the tightening of legislation in other countries.

Despite heavy lobbying from NAVSA, the French vending association,  1 September saw the removal of some 8,000 vending machines throughout middle and secondary schools in France. At the same time new regulations have been introduced regarding the advertising of 'sugary' products along with a surtax on alcopops.

The reasoning behind these Public Health Act rulings is to stop children snacking on so-called junk food and soft drinks - a proactive attempt to stem France's rising obesity problem in children.

It would seem that French children, despite the country's rich gastronomic traditions, are neither eating healthily nor taking enough physical exercise.   According to a report from the International Obesity Task Force published in March 2005, one European child in five is overweight. The highest numbers of obese children are found in the Mediterranean region and France comes mid table. The report found 18% of French children to be overweight and 4% of them to be obese.

France is not the only European country to target vending machines in the fight against the alarming rise in rates of childhood obesity. Sweden, Finland, Denmark and Norway, via the Nordic Council of Ministers, have discussed the restriction and banning of the use of vending machines which dispense high sugar soft drinks, and replacing them with automats dispensing healthier alternatives.

In Belgium, authorities in Brussels have banned vending machines in all of the city's primary schools and in Germany local officials now ban kiosks from selling confectionery and sodas near schools. This year, the Helsinki School Education Board ruled that vending machines should be removed altogether from some comprehensive schools.

But the French approach, an outright ban, is viewed by many as extreme. Experts agree that vending machines are not solely to blame for rising childhood obesity. 'Don't shoot the messenger' is the mantra of the vending industry, arguing that it is the product that goes into the machine, and not vending per se, which needs to be examined.

Klaus Hurrelmann, a professor of public health who heads the collaborative centre on childhood and adolescent health of the World Health Organisation in Bielefeld, Germany, is reported to have said that what was needed is an overall campaign to get French children to discover the healthy eating traditions of their parents and grandparents.

In June, some members of the governing UMP party attempted to have the law amended, arguing that vending machines can provide healthy alternatives that could be given prior approval on a state list. Their proposals were rejected as industry lobbying.

However, a similar stance has been adopted in the USA. The American Beverage Association (ABA) has introduced a voluntary ban on all drinks except water and 100% juice in elementary schools, and all full-calorie soft drinks in middle schools in the US.

The success of the policy is dependent on voluntary implementation by individual beverage companies and by school officials; it does not supersede federal, state and local regulations already in place.

The ABA's Board of Directors, which unanimously approved the policy, represents 20 companies that comprise approximately 85% of school vending beverage sales by bottlers including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo.

"We've been working diligently to introduce new, healthier offerings that give schools a broader selection of better-for-you-options than ever before.  We're also providing incentives to our bottlers that will encourage compliance with the new policy. As an industry, we are part of the solution."  said Dawn Hudson, president and CEO Pepsi-Cola North America.

Her comments chime with soft drink industry trends towards healthier drinking across all ages and demographics. Diet drinks are outperforming regular carbonates, bottled water sales are buoyant with many new pack sizes aimed at children, fruit juice drinks manufacturers are upping the fruit content in their brands and let's not forget the plethora of new functional offerings.

Coca-Cola Enterprises in the UK has its own Schools Code of Practice which says it will not place vending machines in primary schools. For secondary and senior schools it offers 'choice' and 'stills' unbranded vending machines which vend the healthier offerings such as juices and water. The ubiquitous Coca-Cola logo is  replaced by designs showing people engaged in physical activity. CCE says the majority of its machines now vend water and 93% offer non-carbonated fruit-based products.

The British Soft Drinks Association (BSDA) and the UK's Automatic Vending Association (AVA) maintain that vending has a role to play in ensuring that children are adequately hydrated. The BSDA states that vending machines give schools an opportunity to provide, efficiently and hygienically, a wide range of food and drinks to children. The AVA issued its own code of practice some 10 years ago for vending in schools and currently works closely with the Health Education Trust.

The UK's Food Standards Agency (FSA) recently published its report Vending Healthy Drinks - A Guide for Schools, advising schools on how to set up and run machines offering healthier product selections.

The report, based on Health Education Trust trials, demonstrates that the FSA has recognised the benefits of vending and thus a UK move to ban all machines seems unlikely. At the same time the Health Education Trust has launched its 'Best in Class' campaign to encourage school catering initiatives and promote successful vending in schools.

Only time will tell whether the French government's move has been an unnecessary draconian measure in the fight against childhood obesity or one that had foresight and imagination. Meanwhile, the vending and soft drinks industries must collectively self-regulate to determine that what is vended to school children is low in calories, healthy and hydrating.