The American Beverage Association announced a change of heart last week on soft drinks in school.
With public opinion — and science — turning against them, soft drink peddlers announced support for school policies reducing school availability of soft drinks.
Gov. Mike Huckabee announced a virtually identical softening of his position July 25. It wouldn’t surprise us to learn he’d gotten a tip about the lobby’s change of heart. The soft drink lobby has supported him with campaign contributions and a free canoe. He opposed the state soft drink tax. But he managed to look courageous by changing position independently, a few days early. Huckabee had no choice, really. He looked hypocritical preaching about the obesity epidemic and selling his weight-loss testimonial book — with its suggestion to remove unhealthy temptations from your house — while refusing to enforce similar common sense in public school houses.
The beverage industry’s proposal:
• Elementary schools: Only water and 100 percent-juice drinks, no soft drinks. (What luck. Major soft drink manufacturers sell water and juice, the latter often every bit as caloric as soda pop.)
• Middle schools: Only nutritious or lower calorie beverages may be sold, but this would include “sports” drinks and diet soft drinks. No sale of full-calorie drinks until after school hours.
• High schools: No more than 50 percent of vending selections could be soft drinks, but there’d be no restriction on time of sale.
In Arkansas, soft drink sales were already banned in elementary school. The Huckabee-backed rules would limit soft drinks to 50 percent of a vending machine’s contents in secondary schools. No soft drinks could be sold until 30 minutes after lunch hour. This amounts to a softer rule in Arkansas than the industry proposes in middle school, where the industry would ban school-day sales, even after lunch. It’s a somewhat tougher rule than the industry proposes for high school, where all-day sales would be allowed.
The Arkansas rules represent a compromise by a task force on which health advocates faced opposition from the soft drink lobby and school officials addicted to vending machine cash. It isn’t much of a compromise. Soft drink machines with giant logos will remain in secondary schools, beckoning customers at the appointed hour. Imagine if school officials put condom machines in the lunch room, but said, “Not to worry. Students can only buy them after lunch.”
Huckabee’s reversal is seen as little more than a first step by nutritional experts. Janet Gilchrist, a nutritionist at Arkansas Children’s Hospital, told the Democrat-Gazette that she’d prefer the soft drinks be removed altogether (which, to name one, the private Pulaski Academy has done).
A spokesman for the Center for Science in the Public Interest saw the beverage industry’s announcement this way: “Given that poor diet and obesity are problems among teens, soda also has no place in America’s high schools and middle schools, which are much bigger markets for soda companies than elementary schools. I think the soda industry sees the handwriting on the wall. The industry surely hopes this voluntary half-step will forestall efforts to get soda out of all schools.”
It will be a neat trick if the soft drink lobby can, as the tobacco lobby has tried to do, convince people it wants to limit consumption of its products by school kids. It will be a neat trick, too, if Huckabee can convince presidential voters that the good health candidate is a guy who generally sides with the Coke pushers.