March 19, 2018
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Soft drinks targeted unfairly in schools

By Russ Perry, Special to the BDN

I’d like to offer readers some information that the people behind a recent study about soft drink advertising in schools chose to overlook.

For more than half a century, the members of the Maine Beverage Association — the trade association representing local distributors of soda, diet soda, juices, sports drinks and water — have donated hundreds of scoreboards to local schools for use in their sports programs. You see these scoreboards on football, soccer, field hockey, softball and baseball fields — as well as in gymnasiums — across the state, often sporting logos for Coca-Cola, Pepsi or similar beverages.

In March 2007, the Legislature passed a law that, effectively, required schools to remove those scoreboards from school grounds if they advertised a beverage that cannot be sold in school during the school day. Not surprisingly, the Legislature didn’t allocate any money to the schools to help them comply with this law.

It seems ironic that local nonalcoholic beverage distributors would be cast as the bad guys for supporting programs that promote physical activity, especially since physical activity must be the centerpiece of any effort to improve our children’s health. Nevertheless, we were committed to helping the schools modify their scoreboards so that they wouldn’t be faced with the cost — not to mention the needless waste — of tearing them down.

We reached out to the principals of Maine schools in the summer of 2007 before the law ever became effective. More than 50 schools responded to our initial letter. We visited each school, measured the size of the scoreboards in question (many had more than one), ordered plastic laminates of various sizes and (with the exception of lighted signs) returned to the school to install laminates highlighting Dasani or Aquafina waters over logos that previously highlighted Coca-Cola or Pepsi.

In all, we reconfigured more than 150 scoreboards — and at no cost to local taxpayers.

Local beverage distributors remain committed to helping schools comply with this law. For the past four years, we have repeatedly conveyed to public health advocates — including the authors of this study — that we would fix other scoreboards and signage that are not in compliance.

The authors of the study didn’t mention those facts. Perhaps they were more interested in staging a media event to disparage local distributors and chastise local schools, rather than actually address a problem they claim exists. A report highlighting how local beverage distributors have worked with local schools to help them comply with the new and expensive state government regulations won’t make any headlines.

Moreover, the conclusion the survey reached — that this type of marketing is “widespread” — is grossly misleading. In computing their figures, the authors of the survey deliberately and erroneously included vending machines that are located in teachers’ lounges that dispense soda.

The teachers’ lounge is a special area on school grounds. It’s off limits to students. The new law on marketing doesn’t change — and never intended to change — school policy with regard to those areas.

But maybe this is the ultimate, hidden agenda for these folks. Teachers already are expected to solve society’s problems — and educate our kids — during their work day. Now, it appears that their right to enjoy the nonalcoholic beverage of their choice during their 25-minute lunch break is in jeopardy.

Is this what our nanny state has come to?

To be sure, last year beverage companies nationwide successfully implemented the School Beverage Guidelines, replacing full-calorie soft drinks in schools with more lower-calorie, smaller-portion beverages. This change has reduced beverage calories shipped to schools by 88 percent since 2004.

Notably, these guidelines mirrored a decision first made by local Maine distributors nearly a decade earlier to remove all soft drinks from Maine schools and replace them with water and other choices. These are the types of efforts that will have a meaningful, lasting effect in improving our children’s health.

And we will continue to lend our support to school athletic programs and other local organizations that promote opportunities for physical activity for children — regardless of what logo is on the scoreboard.

Russ Perry is general manager of Coca-Cola in Bangor. He lives in Winterport.

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