Schools making too much money on fizzy drinks to ban them
GOVERNMENT health experts have ruled out banning fizzy drink vending machines in schools because they are making too much money.
Instead they are recommending increased taxes on fizzy drinks in a bid to reduce consumption.
Cash-strapped second-level schools are generating up to €1.3m a year in takings from food and drink vending machines, the Irish Independent has learned.
A high-level group opted against recommending a ban as they felt hundreds of schools could not afford to lose the revenue, records obtained by the Irish Independent revealed.
It is estimated that more than 320 of the country's 729 post-primary schools have vending machines.
Many of these schools, which will get a capitation grant of just €317 per pupil this year, are paid between €3,500 and €4,000 a year by the vending companies to place the soft drink and snack food machines on their campuses.
The Special Action Group on Obesity -- appointed by Health Minister James Reilly -- backed off recommending the outlawing of school vending machines because they are a "valuable source of revenue".
The move is yet another setback for Dr Reilly's agenda to encourage healthier lifestyles among adults and children.
The group, containing senior officials from government departments and experts from hospitals, Safefood and the Food Safety Authority, opted against recommending such a ban despite finding that vending machines were a "key source of unhealthy food and drinks".
Details of the group's stance emerged in records obtained by the Irish Independent under freedom of information rules.
The group's recommendations will have a major influence on health policies for tackling obesity.
Vending machines are mostly installed free of charge in schools by independent operators and food or drink companies.
The operators also stock them and guarantee the school a financial cut, the size of which depends on the level of sales.
Representatives of the food and drink industry were called before the special action group in recent months with the aim of securing space in the machines for healthier products, such low fat and low sugar products.
Shane Dempsey, head of consumer foods at IBEC, told the Irish Independent the industry was signed up to a voluntary code stipulating its vending machines should include a range of products, including healthier options. The code prohibits king-size packets. It also bans the installation of vending machines in primary schools.
Having ruled out banning the vending machines, the special group has suggested making sugary drinks more expensive by piling on extra taxes in the next Budget. The cost of a regular soft drink could increase by as much as 7pc.
Health officials have commissioned an independent health impact assessment to argue their case, setting out the health benefits of the extra tax.
Coca-Cola was the only soft drinks company to reply to questions from the Irish Independent, confirming it provides vending machines to schools.
"All machines are stocked with a diverse range of products to offer students choice. The range includes water and juice as well as low- and no-calorie carbonated drinks."
One principal, Shane Hallahan of Presentation Secondary School Kilkenny, bucked the trend and introduced a vending machine, dispensing only water.
"The tap water is cooled and flavoured with lemon or lime. It is sold for 50c a litre," he said.
"The school has nearly 700 pupils and we spent €450,000 expanding the canteen. No fizzy drinks are sold there."