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Weighing Healthier Options

Counter-offensive:
Refute, promote and donate

by James Russell
Illinois School Board Journal, March/April 2004

James Russell is IASB director of publications.

Weighing Healthier OptionsThe soft drink industry is not sitting by idly while politicians and nutritionists debate who is to blame for making our children fat, fatter or fattest.

What really concerns the $61 billion-a-year industry is the potential for litigation and regulation that may result from the ongoing obesity vs. cola war. In fact, industry groups are comparing the arguments against soft drinks with the early days of the anti-tobacco campaign.

Citing attacks from consumer groups, the media and government, soft drink companies have developed a "pre-emptive" response that they hope will divert the debate away from beverage sales.

In November, Dr. Pepper/7 Up chief Mike McGrath referred to the childhood obesity issue as "real and these concerns must be respected and addressed." But he also warned that lawyers "who fought the fight against tobacco companies are galvanized on the obesity front."

One way they are fighting back is to fund and cite studies that refute or deny the links between soda and public health issues.

When the American Academy of Pediatrics announced in December that school districts should consider restricting the sale of soft drinks to "safeguard against health problems that result from over consumption," NSDA cited other studies that insisted a lack of physical activity, not changes in caloric intake, is responsible for increased childhood obesity rates.

In response to the physicians' claims that "sugared soft drink consumption has been associated with increased risk of overweight and obesity," the soft drink industry blamed doctors for failing to account for existing vending machine limits, the prerogative of local educators, and need for proper hydration and adequate daily physical exercise.

While effectively arguing the credibility of independent studies and the semantics of terms used in obesity issues, the industry's other major offensive tact is actively promoting the benefits of physical exercise and other activities.

For example, last year Coca Cola began a program called "Step With It!", a 10,000 step-per-day program for children ages 10 to 14. Suggested activities include running, dancing and stepping. Coke's support includes funding for the materials and guidelines to begin the program at each participating school.

Coca Cola Enterprises has also produced a 20-page booklet, "Your Power to Choose," which includes nutritional information, statistics and programs for encouraging healthy, active lifestyles. A similar initiative will be implemented with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America.

Chief rival PepsiCo is following suit with its "Health is Power" resource guide and a Web site, www.PECentral.com , to promote its "Get Active Stay Active! Program," where students can create personal accounts and build online fitness journals.

Behind the scenes, soft drink makers are rallying the troops by expanding their power base and making sure their voice is heard in federal and state lawmaking chambers.

Several years ago, the National Soft Drink Association (NSDA) voted to amend its by-laws to permit manufacturers and distributors of non-carbonated beverages to join as active members. Today, the association also represents makers of juices, teas, coffees, sports drinks, waters and other beverages.

"Government intrusiveness in the marketplace rarely distinguishes between carbonated or non-carbonated," NSDA reported in a news release about its member expansion plans.

Figures for the group's overall lobbying expenses are not reported. However, here is what the Illinois Soft Drink Political Action Committee has contributed in recent years:

  • 2003 - $12,300 (eight Illinois campaigns)
  • 2002 - $22,500 (eight campaigns)
  • 2001 - $23,280 (nine campaigns)
  • 2000 - $19,300 (15 campaigns)

That's small change in a political world where the state's two teacher unions contributed a combined $4.4 million to Illinois candidates and political campaigns in 2002. But the dollars add up, when multiplied candidate by candidate, state by state, and at the federal office level.

NSDA's federal PAC contributed $164,926 to federal candidates in 2002. Coke, through three of its own PACs, gave $390,586, while Pepsi's two PACs generated $374,926 for candidates.

That much money gives their collective voice a chance to be heard.

As Congress resumed its activities in February, NSDA was preparing to visit Capitol Hill to discuss the reauthorization of the School Lunch Program. "Make no mistake," the NSDA warned its members. "There are those in Congress who seek to ban the sale of our products in schools, and lawmakers have filed about a half dozen bills that would do just that."

Visits were scheduled with NSDA assistance on talking points, background and briefing materials. Local bottlers and related beverage industry representatives were encouraged to talk with lawmakers about the importance of local school partnerships, the variety of products available, and how much the industry respects the influence of parents, coaches, principals and other local school officials in building these relationships.

In addition to Illinois, there are 20 other states considering legislation that sets stricter nutrition standards for all beverages.

Sources

Jeff Cioletti, "Getting Mobilized," BeverageWorld, November 15, 2003

"D-2 Semi-Annual Reports," Illinois Soft Drink PAC, Illinois State Board of Elections, www.elections.il.gov/

"Money and Elections in Illinois 2002," Illinois State Board of Elections, www.elections.il.gov/Downloads/CampaignDisclosure/PDF/Money2002.pdf

"NSDA to Serve More Than Soft Drinks," NSDA, December 4, 2000

Policy Statement, American Academy of Pediatrics, Pediatrics, January 2004

Heather Todd, "Circling the Wagons," BeverageWorld, November 15, 2003

"Washington Fly-In," National Soft Drink Association

"2002 PAC Summary Data for: Soft Drink PAC; Coca-Cola Enterprises; Coca-Cola Co.; PepsiCo Inc.; Pepsi-Cola Bottlers Assn.," Center for Responsive Politics, www.opensecrets.org/pacs/.

Weighing Healthier Options

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