Schoolhouse Rot

New research is showing that soft drinks are even worse for kids’ health than previously thought. So why are a growing number of public schools signing deals giving soda companies exclusive marketing rights to their students?

Image: AP/Wideworld


It has been linked to broken bones, osteoporosis, and obesity. It may increase diabetes rates and the severity of kidney stones. It can lead to nervousness, insomnia, attention-deficit disorder and addiction. And American teen-agers are consuming more of it than ever.

Sure, everyone knows soft drinks aren’t good for you. But a wave of new research strongly suggests they’re even worse than anyone realized. Nevertheless, American teen-agers are consuming record quantities of the stuff — thanks in part to a growing number of public schools signing marketing deals with soda companies.

Soda is dispensed in American schools today like coffee in corporate offices. Over the past three years, the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education estimates that 240 school districts in 31 states have sold exclusive rights to one of the three big soda barons eager to hook teen-agers on Dr Pepper, Pepsi, or The Real Thing.

“Many teens are drowning in worthless sugar water,” says Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest. “Parents should limit their children’s soda consumption and demand that schools get rid of soft-drink vending machines, just as they have banished smoking.”

New research adds weight to Jacobson’s words. Harvard School of Public Health professor Grace Wyshak recently found that ninth and 10th-grade girls who sipped soda were three times more likely to break bones than those who quenched their thirsts with other drinks. Worse, her study found that physically active girls who drank colas were five times more likely to break bones as physically active girls who abstained from carbonated beverages. Wyshak believes the phosphoric acid in colas may interfere with the body’s ability to use calcium.

That’s of particular concern considering that teen-agers are increasingly substituting corn syrup for calcium — an essential element for developing bones. From 1965 to 1996, adolescent milk consumption dropped 36 percent, while adolescent soft-drink consumption more than doubled, according to a recent University of North Carolina study. Adolescent girls who fail to get enough calcium will build insufficient bone mass, leaving their bones thin and fragile.

Wyshak’s study is just the most recent giving soda a sour taste. Her latest report confirms her earlier research associating carbonated beverage consumption with bone fractures in girls and postmenopausal women. A 1999 South African study warns that cola may exacerbate kidney-stone problems. And a growing body of psychiatrists’ work over the last decade fingers the caffeine in soda as a possible culprit in children’s inability to sleep, concentrate, and stay on task.

Nutritionists, meanwhile, warn that sugar in soda seems certain to be swelling America’s problem with obesity and the concurrent rise in diabetes. Recent research has found that half of American adults and one in five American children are overweight.

The National Soft Drink Association, however, insists its products are being unfairly demonized. Richard Adamson, the association’s vice president of scientific and technical affairs, dismisses the Harvard study as “nutritional nonsense.”

“Soft drinks have a place in a well-balanced diet,” adds Sean McBride, communications director for the NSDA. “If you take all the science as a whole, there is no connection between soft drinks and health problems that have been raised.”

Wyshak volleys back: “To me, it’s no different from the issue with smoking. If you produce this stuff, and you make money off it, you want to deny it.”

Meanwhile, soda sales tempt money-strapped schools with too-good-to-reject deals. In one notorious case, a Colorado Springs school district in 1997 gave Coca-Cola exclusive access to its 30,000 students for a promise of more than $8 million over 10 years. The catch: The kids needed to gulp at least 70,000 cases of Coke products in one of the first three contract years. One enthusiastic school administrator wrote a letter — signing it “the Coke Dude” — urging principals to consider allowing kids unlimited access to Coke machines.

Outrage over the Coke Dude’s letter helped prompt a federal General Accounting Office investigation last fall. The GAO found that, while soda sales are the most lucrative commercial deal for schools, they still represent only a minute percentage of school budgets.

But the soda companies aren’t looking for immediate profits, says Andrew Hagelshaw, executive director of the Center for Commercial-Free Public Education. “It’s all about promoting … an addiction to caffeine and sugar and to a particular brand name.”

Bob Phillips, spokesman for Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of California, bristles at the word “addiction.” Soda manufacturers claim they just add caffeine to soda to enhance flavor. A new Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine taste study, however, supports the notion that caffeine is added to soda to addict drinkers. Only 8 percent of regular cola consumers detected a flavor difference at the caffeine concentration found in popular colas, the study found. Researchers concluded: “The high consumption rates of caffeine-containing soft drinks are more likely to reflect the mood-altering and physical dependence-producing effects of caffeine as a central nervous system-active drug than its subtle effects as a flavoring agent.”

“The picture that’s painted is that kids are walking around shaking because of soft drinks at school, and I think it’s blown out of proportion,” says Phillips. Soda companies are just being helpful neighbors, he insists. “As a local business in these communities,” Phillips says, “we view it as providing some benefit to the schools.”

Few educators seem concerned. None of 20 school administrators, school board members, school nutritionists and school nurses interviewed for this story had heard about the new Harvard study. San Francisco’s school district banned exclusive contracts for soda and junk food in 1999, but few areas have followed their example. Former California state Assembly member Kerry Mazzoni tried to push through a bill banning exclusive beverage contracts — which she calls “selling your children to the highest bidder” — in schools statewide, but had to settle for a law requiring school boards to hold public hearings before signing such contracts. California is the only state with even this mild requirement.

Parents did bubble up with anger when Coke, as part of its $5 million deal with Houston schools, placed a vending machine stocked with sugary Fruitopia on a Houston elementary school campus. But in general, school administrators say parents rarely complain about soda on campus. Many serve it at home. “I see kids walking to school with a soda pop in their hand,” says Judi Baker, a Petaluma, Calif. school nurse. “You wonder if that’s breakfast.”

“I drink soda, like, 24/7,” a Petaluma High School freshman says outside the cafeteria. She carries a 20-ounce plastic bottle of Cherry Coke. When she hears about the Harvard study, she volunteers that she hyper-extended her knee in the seventh grade. “I don’t know if I’m going to be able to stop drinking soda,” she says, “but I’m not addicted to it.”