The new industry-backed federal proposal to get junk food and regular soda out of public schools would ban states from enacting stricter standards. The soda companies have cynically gone from advocating “local control” to urging federal preemption of any law that bans diet soda from public schools. Seven states have already banned diet soda. Any federal law should only set a minimum floor, with both school districts and states free to enact higher standards. Most parents want candy and liquid candy, both diet and regular, expelled from public schools. When I last kept track, the ten largest cities in the countries had already gone soda free K-12 — both diet and regular.

When Detroit canned soda, that was a sign that the good idea had widespread acceptance. Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) once noted that the industry initiative to eventually replace regular sodas with diet sodas was “voluntary” — like a shot-gun wedding is voluntary. But the comment suggests an important question. Why marry — or get in bed with — the purveyors of soda to children at all? All soda should go. Only healthful drinks should be promoted to children on public property by educators whose responsibility it is to model healthful choices. The issue of benzoate-ascorbic interaction is far greater in diet drinks.

Most parents want legislators and school boards to rid schools of soda, both diet and regular.

As for the pragmatists who point out that the soda industry will kill the bill if the preemption provision is deleted, there is a grassroots answer: boycott the products of those who insist on promoting soda to our kids. Let parents take the battle to the grocery store aisles until the industry is responsive. If a political answer in DC requires such a dramatic compromise of values, then maybe the fight is best left to the parents. At a minimum, however, politicians should not dare try to stop the good works of parents in the states who have banned all soda — or the parents who plan to do so in their state next year.

France has banned all vending in schools. Russian schools have gone soda-free. In India, the FDA has urged schools to ban soda given the unhealthfulness and the pesticides. Malta public schools, beginning next month, are among the latest to throw the junk out.

In the US, the FDA is dominated by industry and so the FDA will never direct that the companies not sell products with benzene to schoolchildren. The FDA just asked behind-the-scenes that the company reformulate — even though that is what the FDA had demanded decades ago when it first discovered the problem and joined with industry in concealing the issue from the public. The benzene class action lawyers have made their fees and gone home. The public will never learn what industry documents showed about how the largest soft drink companies knowingly marketed benzene to a captive market of schoolchildren.

When I last followed the news, activists were fighting a rolling battle at the state-level that the industry seeks to quiet. In the US, Schwarzenegger signed a law to make California schools soda free. Maine and New Jersey took decisive administrative action with less fanfare. Nevada public schools went soda-free. (CCE managed to stall legislation in Massachusetts using the Worcester state senator, and the legislators in Rhode Island, well rested after at a Celtics game hosted by CCE, advanced a lame K-8 bill in Rhode Island.). A broad K-12 ban passed in Connecticut only after a bruising battle in which Governor Rell was in the soda companies’ corner. Hawaii was expected to go soda-free — both regular and diet — by regulation passed by the Board of Education. In Indiana, the Senate overwhelmingly passed a tepid measure even though 75% of those polled in Indiana favor an outright K-12 ban of junk food and soda. A bill was previously overwhelmingly passed by the NY Assembly but Coca-Cola lobbyist Patricia Lynch (Silver’s former aide hired right out of office) never let it go to the Senate for a vote. Throughout the country, money talks — and school vending is a cash business.

Countries like New Zealand, Australia and Wales and states like Hawaii decided not to take the slow road, politically expedient, half-measure approach to improving nutrition in schools recommended by the industry in the proposed federal bill.

Districts that have gone soda-free K-12 — both regular and diet — include NYC, LA, Chicago, Miami-Dade, Philly, Pittsburgh, Scranton, Las Vegas, San Francisco, Boston, DC, Seattle, Austin, Baltimore, Albuquerque, Flagstaff, Buffalo, Binghamton, Fresno, Oakland, Montreal, Quebec City, Sioux Falls, Des Moines, and many others.

The soda industry should make lemonade out of real lemons and voluntarily pull all sodas out of public schools throughout the world — both regular and diet.

The tendency of benzene to form is greatest in diet drinks. Companies and regulatory authorities worldwide should conduct routine testing and monitoring of the relevant products for benzene. An industry spokesman once said that as “every production line comes off, we take samples and test, so we’re sure that it’s safe.'” Given, however, that the process is shelf-life dependent — and greatly affected by heat and light — what is needed is transparent, independent testing of products that have been on the shelf for a while. Even more importantly, testing must include exposure to heat and sunlight. These refreshments are commonly brought to the beach or stored unrefrigerated or in the light. I don’t even want to think about what our soldiers in Iraq are drinking after being left in high temperatures on tarmacs.

State education agencies should require such testing as a requirement of sale on school property and should require that the drinks be certified to at least meet the standard for drinking water. It is outrageous if the US Congress deems it sensible to preempt such regulation.

Water supplies are regularly tested and bottled water in the US is subject to regulations relating to permissible benzene levels. If diet soft drinks are being urged by soda companies and some school administrators and legislators as a substitute for water, then those soft drinks should be tested also. If in the United States the American Beverage Association (“ABA”) President Susan Neely truly wanted to be “proactive,” then the ABA should support regular, transparent and independent testing such as is done for tap water and bottled water. Coca-Cola worldwide should do the same. Given Coca-Cola and Pepsi actively opposed disclosing the levels of pesticides in their drinks in India, the companies cannot be relied upon to ensure that no product above the safety guidelines is sold. (Similarly, only beverage grade carbon dioxide should be used in dispensing fountain retail drinks; food grade carbon dioxide is not screened or measured for benzene.) We should hold our beverage companies who provide the beverages for profit to the same safety standard as our ground water and drinking water.

Preemption, when it comes to the health of our school children, is unacceptable.

Coca-Cola has been widely criticized for a range of practices around the world in recent years. In the US, its conduct most often criticized relates to this promotion of unhealthful beverages to a captive audience of schoolchildren. The backlash Coca-Cola experienced worldwide was of its own making. Coke should learn from history and not work to orchestrate half-measures intended to take the steam out of a strong soda-free (diet and regular) movement that overtook the top 10 largest school districts.

In 1858, German scientist Friedrich August Kekule reported a “waking dream” he had while deep in thought — he visualized the structure of the “benzene ring,” an organic compound made up of carbon atoms, as “a snake biting itself in its tail.” The industry has been acting like a snake biting its tail by not pulling soda out of public schools — both regular and diet. Now its insistence on a preemption provision, urging that it is a deal-breaker, should result in a similar backlash. The industry should either pull diet soda out nationally or at least embrace the drinking water standard as it relates to benzene for all soft drinks that contain sodium benzoate. (Such diet drinks being promoted by this federal bill remain subject to the formation of benzene in the presence of ascorbic acid).

The lobbyists are keeping the language from public view so as to avoid criticism, leaving the casual observer to think the original Harkin bill is the proposal. If the industry does not agree to drop this still undisclosed preemption provision in the proposed federal bill, the simplest legislative solution — one that would sidestep the industry’s preemption gambit — would be for Congress to ban sodium benzoate from school beverages as has been proposed in Great Britain.

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