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Big Soda's Publicity Stunt

The trade group responsible for pushing sugary drinks to children of all ages has just trumpeted another set of useless new guidelines.
 
 
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Move over Big Tobacco, you've got competition in the Shameless PR award category: With much fanfare, the American Beverage Association (the trade group formerly known as the National Soft Drink Association) has announced a new school-based policy "aimed at providing lower calorie and/or nutritious beverages to schools and limiting the availability of soft drinks."

The specifics of the policy matter less than the enormous amount of positive press that resulted. Newspaper accounts included such headlines as "Soft drink industry takes high road" and "Schools get ally in soda issue: Drink makers."

Unfortunately, the real impact of this move is far different. To begin with, the ABA is the soda makers' lobbying arm and doesn't directly contract with schools. Soda is sold through local distributors controlled by the parent companies. Next, there is no enforcement or oversight mechanism for the voluntary rules. Coca-Cola and Pepsi-Cola boasted that the new policy mirrored their own, and that should raise plenty of red flags. Coca-Cola's 2003 voluntary "model guidelines" to not sell sodas in elementary schools are already routinely violated. Documented examples include schools in Kentucky and Texas.

In addition, the policy only applies to vending machines, ignoring other ways that soda is sold in schools, such as in stores, from soda fountains, and at sporting events. And conveniently enough for industry, many schools are locked into lengthy contracts, sometimes for as long as thirteen years. The rules would only apply to new contracts. If ABA members really cared about children's health, why not call for renegotiation of all school contracts right now?

What Nutrition Standards?

Even if the policy could actually be implemented, from a nutrition standpoint, the guidelines are a joke. Many schools have much stronger policies already in place. The ABA policy says no soda in elementary schools; why do they only care about young children's health? Also, because sports and juice drinks are also high in sugar and calories, nutritionists advise against them. Yet, the ABA says they're ok for middle and high schools.

Numerous school districts around the nation, including in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Boston, Seattle and Chicago, have banned all soda and other highly sweetened beverages in all grades. Philadelphia's school beverage policy is simple: water, 100% juice, and milk, K-12, period. Why doesn't ABA's simply policy call for only healthy beverages in all schools? As New York attorney Ross Getman told Bloomberg News, "The announcement represents a calculation that they can just as easily hook a kid on caffeinated soda in four years instead of six." In other words, it's all about brand loyalty, and high schools kids make decisions that last a lifetime.

Deflecting State Legislation

That the ABA made their big announcement at the annual meeting of the National Conference of State Legislatures was both calculated and ironic, since the group's members have been lobbying against state bills to improve school nutrition for years. In recent months, bills have been either killed or significantly gutted, thanks to heavy lobbying from Coca-Cola and friends, in such states as Connecticut, Arizona, New Mexico and Oregon. While the ABA said their policy would not supercede any existing policies (how nice, since their policy couldn't supercede a state law), no pledges have been made by the ABA or its members to halt their lobbying activities.

The ABA got quotes for its press release from three politicians: North Carolina Lt. Governor Beverly Perdue, California Assemblywoman Gloria Negrete McLeod, and Georgia Senator Renee Unterman. North Carolina passed a bill last month that closely mirrors the new ABA policy, so there would be no impact in that state anyway. In California, a stronger law is already on the books and another bill (backed by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger) to get sodas out of high schools, is pending. So the policy is moot there as well. And with Coca-Cola headquarters based in Georgia, lawmakers in that state are loath to pass any school vending bill.

ABA's real purpose is to ward off future efforts to enact stronger laws. Every time the local news covers another attempt by a state legislature to pass a bill to limit soda in school, this creates a public relations problem. But if industry is perceived as "being part of the solution" (as the ABA press release professes) then lawmakers just might take the issue off the table.

Money Can Buy Love

There is no better evidence of this announcement being a publicity stunt than the ABA's multi-million dollar plan "to run print and broadcast advertising to educate the public about the new policy." If the motivation is truly children's health, why does the ABA need to advertise? Why not spend that money ensuring that local bottlers make the changes instead? What possible purpose could an ad campaign serve, other than to promote soda companies as caring, responsible corporate citizens?

If this sounds eerily familiar, it should. The ABA is taking a page right out of the tobacco industry's playbook: Spend more money marketing a new responsible image than it costs actually being responsible.

Michele Simon, a public-health attorney who teaches health policy at the UC Hastings College of the Law, is director of the Center for Informed Food Choices , a nonprofit in Oakland, Calif.