PORTLAND, Maine — Maine high schools are plastered with promotions for junk foods despite a state law that prohibits marketing unhealthy snacks and drinks on public school grounds, according to a new study.
Posters and signs for junk foods appeared in 85 percent of 20 Maine high schools examined by the study led by Michele Polacsek, an associate professor of public health at the University of New England. Schools violating the law had an average of nearly a dozen of the promotions, with many of the ads springing up far beyond the cafeteria doors, the study found.
“We were not surprised to find that most of the state’s high schools marketed unhealthy foods and drinks where those items are sold and consumed, but we were very surprised to learn that so many schools still promote unhealthy fare in teachers’ lounges and near athletic areas, including gyms and sports fields,” Polacsek said in a press release.
The marketing appeared on walls, vending machines, scoreboards, coolers and inside yearbooks, among other spots. Coke and Pepsi products topped the list of the most commonly advertised junk foods.
To bring schools into compliance with the law, the Maine Beverage Association, working with the Maine Principal’s Association, replaced more than 150 signs at more than 50 schools, according to Newell Augur, executive director of the beverage group.
The study appears in the March-April edition of the journal Public Health Reports. It was funded in part by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation through its national Healthy Eating Research program.
Researchers visited the high schools in 2010 to conduct the study, which was the first to assess schools’ compliance with the law.
Since 1985, federal law has prohibited the sale of “foods of minimal nutritional value” during public school mealtimes. Maine expanded its law to include junk foods sold anytime during the schoolday, and in 2007 became the first state to outlaw brand-specific marketing of unhealthy foods at schools.
The federal standard defines unhealthy foods as those with less than 5 percent of the recommended daily intake of eight key nutrients. Soda, hard candies, cookies and gum fall into the category.
Maine’s law makes exceptions for foods sold to the public at events held on school property outside school hours, as well as for culinary arts programs.
Schools participating in the study overwhelmingly supported limiting students’ exposure to ads for unhealthy foods, but the majority wanted more help to meet the law’s requirements. Many administrators didn’t even know about the ban.
The Maine Department of Education had a different take on schools’ compliance with the law. The department reviews nutrition programs at each of the state’s 639 public schools every five years, including checking for food product advertising in cafeterias and common spaces, according to David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for the Education Department.
“Our experience is schools are pretty good about it, and when something comes up, it’s inadvertent,” he said.
Connerty-Marin said he had not reviewed the UNE study.
The Maine Public Health Association called on the Education Department and the beverage industry to support schools in eliminating soda ads, particularly on scoreboards.
“Given the high rate of overweight and obesity experienced by Maine children and the link between marketing of foods to children and unhealthy diets, advertisement of unhealthy food and beverages should not be present in our schools,” said MPHA board president Lisa Harvey-McPherson.
Polacsek agreed that limiting marketing of unhealthy foods was crucial to making schools healthier.
“During the schoolday, kids are a captive audience, and they shouldn’t be bombarded with ads for junk foods,” she said in the release.
The results of the study were released Wednesday at the Physical Activity and Nutrition Summit 2012 in Augusta.