The US soft drinks industry, accused by health authorities of promoting obesity, said Monday it had dramatically reduced the amount of high-calorie sodas sold in schools.
Leading companies, including Coca-cola and PepsiCo, joined former president Bill Clinton in announcing the results of an initiative they said had reduced by 88 percent the number of drinks calories in US schools since 2004.
"It's a brand new day in America's schools when it comes to beverages," said the head of the American Beverage Association, Susan Neely.
"Our beverage companies have slashed calories in schools as full-calorie soft drinks have been removed. The beverages available to students are now lower-calorie, nutritious, smaller-portion choices."
The cuts were the result of an agreement between the big soft drinks companies and the Alliance for a Healthier Generation, a joint initiative of the American Heart Association and Clinton Foundation.
Nearly one in five US children aged six to 19 are estimated to be obese, a condition that frequently leads to related health problems such as diabetes and heart disease.
The soft drinks industry is one of the main targets for critics and Monday's announcement from the Alliance for a Healthier Generation provided the industry with a rare piece of positive news.
There are growing attempts by local and state governments to impose a so-called "fat tax" on soft drinks -- both to fill public coffers during recession and to curb soft drink consumption.
New York is in the forefront of the campaign, which the American Beverage Association vigorously opposes.
New York state Health Commissioner Richard Daines pressed the issue Monday, saying there was a "golden opportunity" to create the tax.
"The dramatic underpricing of sugar-sweetened beverages, their widespread availability, and the ceaseless marketing of these products constitute a stumbling block to good health and are a clear and present danger to the future of our children," Daines said.
Clinton side-stepped the tax controversy at the Healthier Generation press conference, saying he wanted to focus on the success of the schools program.
Under the project, full-calorie drinks were removed from shipments to school canteens and vending machines, while lighter and more nutritious drinks were added.
These included low-fat milk, diet soft drinks, flavored waters and teas.
The companies also spent millions of dollars in retrofitting vending machines and repackaging products.
Clinton, who underwent heart surgery last month and is an active campaigner for better health, said the program to reduce ultra-sugary drinks in schools was "a critical component of the Alliance's national effort to end childhood obesity."
"School is a unique environment where students make food and beverage choices with limited supervision," said Clyde Yancy, president of the American Heart Association.
"The Alliance School Beverage Guidelines are a tool for reducing students' access to calories during the school day and changing behaviors that may lead to a lifelong improvement in caloric consumption."