DO YOU KNOW HOW many soft drinks your kids consume? The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) thinks you should. In the recently released report Liquid Candy: How Soft Drinks Are Harming Americans’ Health, the Washington, D.C.–based consumer watchdog group reveals the health risks incurred by teenagers who pop too much pop—an average of three cans a day—and blasts the aggressive targeting of kids by Big Soda. CSPI directs much of its ire at school districts that sign marketing agreements with soft-drink companies. Named in the report was the Grapevine-Colleyville Independent School District outside Dallas, which allowed Dr Pepper to paint its logo on the rooftops of Grapevine Middle School and Cannon Elementary so that it could be seen by airline passengers flying overhead.
Such deals—which have been cut by school districts all across Texas, from Amarillo to Houston—generally have the soft-drink companies paying a negotiated amount in exchange for scoreboard advertising and the exclusive sale of a particular brand in a school’s machines and at its extracurricular events. In the case of the Grapevine-Colleyville deal, which was signed last year, Dr Pepper will pay $3.45 million over ten years to ensure that only its products will be available at the district’s seventeen schools. In October San Antonio’s Northside Independent School District signed a deal with Pepsi estimated to be worth $14 million over ten years. It sounds like a favorable trade-off: These and other districts get extra money in tight budgetary times, and the soft-drink companies receive, in effect, captive audiences and a prime opportunity to establish brand loyalty.
School districts and soda companies contend that these deals are nothing new. “We’ve had exclusive bottling agreements for about twenty five years in the state; that’s old hat,” says Louise Henry, Grapevine-Colleyville’s director of school and community relations. “The thing that is new is that instead of having each campus determine what bottler it wants to stock its soda machine, districts are saying, ‘We’ll make you a deal for all of our campuses, and in return we get some extra funding.’” Debbie Moody, the vice president of public affairs for Coca-Cola Enterprises, says simply, “We want to have our products available anywhere our customers and consumers are living and working and playing.”
But critics see the districts and the soft-drink makers as bargaining away our children’s health. “I think it’s bad enough to have vending machines in the schools,” says Michael Jacobson, CSPI’s executive director, “but these deals amount to the schools giving their imprimatur to soft drinks in general and these brands in particular. It’s ironic that kids learn about nutrition in health class, but as soon as they leave the classroom, the first things they see are vending machines that entice them to eat junk food.”
Ultimately, of course, what matters most is what the kids themselves think. So? “Most of us wish we could have more choices than just Dr Pepper products,” says Eddie Ledesma, a freshman at Grapevine High School. “I have a Coke in my bag, but I had to bring it from home.”