The headlines certainly sound impressive: “Companies pulling sodas out of school” claimed the Associated Press; “Bottlers agree to a school ban on sweet drinks” said the New York Times.” These and hundreds of other news stories around the nation this week gave the impression that the beverage industry had an epiphany and magically, all soda will disappear from schools forever.
Only one problem: nothing could be further from the truth. On Wednesday, Big Cola announced yet another voluntary school sales policy, this time, one brokered by the Clinton Foundation (the former president has made childhood obesity one of his post-presidency causes) and the American Heart Association.
We don’t even know all the details of this secretly-negotiated deal because the Clinton Foundation hasn’t made the actual agreement available on its website. (However, you can download the photo opportunities from the press conference.) What we do know is that this new policy is completely voluntary, which means it’s unenforceable, with no accountability. We are told that the “goal” is to implement the guidelines in 75 percent of schools by the 2008-09 school year, with the rest coming on board a year later. That’s quite a long phase-in period given the imminent public health crisis our children face. How this goal can be achieved given the lack of oversight is a complete mystery.
This isn’t the first time Big Cola has tried to sugar coat its image. Last August, Coke and Pepsi’s lobbying arm, the American Beverage Association’s (ABA), announced a similar unenforceable policy that turned out to be a sham. Since industry’s last PR stunt didn’t make their problems go away, they just came up with a better idea: co-opt a former president. Will Bill Clinton visit every school in the nation to ensure that this policy even gets implemented?
Susan Neely, president of the American Beverage Association said: "This is a voluntary policy, but I think schools will want to follow it.” Excuse me? It’s up to the schools to follow an agreement that the soda companies signed? The Clinton Foundation website further explains the onus placed on schools:
We encourage schools with existing contracts to contact their bottler to amend their existing contract to immediately change the beverages available in their schools to include only the options outlined in this policy. PepsiCo, Coca-Cola, and Cadbury Schweppes together with their bottlers will work with schools and school districts in the spirit of mutual financial fairness in amending its agreements with schools and school districts.
So individual schools and districts around the nation now find themselves with the sudden directive to renegotiate their contracts with bottlers. But what if they don’t? Does anyone really think that Coke going is going to refuse to sell its flagship product to throngs of thirsty teens who the company seeks to brand for life? Are we really expected to believe that companies who shamelessly exploit public schools’ need for funding are going to operate in the “spirit of mutual financial fairness,” now that the press conference is over and the cameras are no longer rolling? Moreover, is the Clinton Foundation offering any legal assistance to schools to help them renegotiate rather complex multi-year contracts?
Even from a health standpoint, the deal is hardly impressive. Diet soda full of artificial sweeteners, sports drinks high in sugar, and other empty-calorie beverages with zero nutritional value are still allowed in high schools. Also, parents concerned about soda advertising in schools will not be pleased with the agreement. Not a word is mentioned about the ubiquitous marketing children are subjected to daily in the form of branded score boards, school supplies, sports bags, and cups (just to name a few), which is required by exclusive Coke and Pepsi contracts. It’s no secret that branding is the main purpose of these arrangements. Big Cola may shift a few products around or serve up fewer calories with this new deal, but what’s most important to them is maintaining access to young and impressionable consumers in a captive environment.
In contrast to this voluntary agreement, the current effort in state legislatures all over the nation to pass bills to rid schools of unhealthy drinks would require actual policy change. Over the past several years, almost every state in the nation has tried in vain to pass legislation to get junk food and sugary beverages out of schools. Just a few states have been able to pass any such legislation, and only after several years of heated political battles. Big Cola spends big money on lobbyists to gut or kill these bills. There’s nothing in the Clinton agreement that requires Coke and Pepsi to stop the lobbying, and indeed industry has continued to fight legislation, even as these negotiations were underway. That’s because corporations prefer self-regulation, a non-enforceable voluntary system that has already proven to be a dismal failure. Has anyone noticed that the ABA policy from last August was never even implemented? And yet we are now expected to trust these same corporations to do with right thing just because Bill Clinton has anointed the proceedings?
Most disturbingly, this announcement could potentially undermine ongoing grassroots efforts, state legislation, and other enforceable policies. For example, in Massachusetts where a stronger bill is pending, a local advocate is worried about the adverse impact, since legislators could easily think that Clinton has taken care of the problem and ignore the bill. What was already an uphill battle—getting schools and legislatures to take this problem seriously—was just made worse, not better, by this bogus agreement.
If Bill Clinton really wanted to help America’s schoolchildren, he should work with grassroots advocates, parents, teachers, and others fighting against powerful corporations to pass legally enforceable legislation at the state and federal level to mandate positive policy change. The last we needed was more empty promises from industry in the guise of public health reform.
Michele Simon is the director of the Center for Informed Food Choices, based in Oakland, Calif. and the author of the forthcoming book, Appetite for Profit (Nation Books).