deal with the devil
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
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.
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