A deal with the devil

Toledo Blade

April 1, 2007
WHEN the American Heart Association and former President Bill Clinton forged a deal last year to bar unhealthy soft drinks from school vending machines by 2009, we were all for it. Now, it turns out there was a fatal flaw in the plan, one the soft-drink industry should remedy.

The fine print in the 10-year marketing agreements most school districts signed with soft-drink bottlers requires big paybacks if the contracts are altered, making immediate change financially impractical.

This was true in Portland, Ore., where school officials realized that eliminating diet soda and sports drinks from vending machines and cafeterias would cost the district $600,000 of the $1.2 million it received from the local bottler.

In Racine, Wis., the schools abandoned a plan to remove high-calorie drinks after officials discovered it would cost $200,000. Now they have to wait until the pact expires in 2010. Thus, even though they want to do right by their students, and get rid of the health scourge of soda in schools, districts are being stymied.

That's an outrage, one officials of the soft-drink industry should move to rectify. It might cost them some money but they can do it if they're really concerned about the health of young people and not simply their exclusive marketing agreements.

Otherwise, last year's highly publicized voluntary agreement, whose signees included Coca Cola, Pepsi, and Cadbury-Schweppes, will be just a charade.

The three manufacturers pledged to make "diligent efforts" to ensure that contracts complied with guidelines providing for milk, water, and fruit juice for elementary pupils and water or low-calorie drinks for high school students.

But, as the Washington Post reported, the companies operate independently of the bottlers with whom the contracts were signed. Deborah Pinkas, a Portland lawyer who has written about the issue, says many districts "are stuck with a deal with the devil The schools could buy out the contract, but this is about kids and school districts that are strapped for cash."

The industry's response: Tough noogies.

"Schools ask for money up front," a spokesman for the American Beverage Association told the Post. "So companies have made an investment. If you're going to alter that dramatically, the one side is going to bear the brunt of the financial pain, which isn't fair."

Perhaps not, but neither is marketing beverages with little or no nutritional value to captive customers who happen to be children and cannot fully appreciate the documented peril from obesity and dental problems.

School officials probably should have realized the dangers of long-range contracts, but holding the districts hostage isn't right when the health of children is at stake.

If the beverage industry wants to demonstrate that it is as truly concerned about the health of millions of American kids as it professed to be last year, the bottlers and the trade groups will share the losses and allow schools to switch to less harmful products. The cost might not be as great as they fear.

After all, there's a lot of money to be made selling a few cents worth of water at a dollar or more a bottle.