Jacob Sullum

Now that Chelsea is all grown up and living on her own, Bill and Hillary Clinton have turned their attention to raising other people's children. The senator is determined to protect them from video games, while the former president is saving them from soda.

The latter effort recently produced an agreement by the nation's leading soft-drink companies aimed at changing the mix of beverages sold in schools. Clinton called the deal "a bold step forward in the struggle to help 35-million young people lead healthier lives," saying "this one policy can add years and years and years to the lives of a very large number of young people."

It's hard to see how. Although the agreement is supposed to help prevent obesity, it's unlikely to have a measurable effect on students' weight.

To begin with, drinks approved for sale under the new rules, including fruit juices and low-fat milk, have just as many calories as the now-verboten sugar-sweetened soda. If the aim is making kids thinner -- as opposed to, say, addressing a heretofore unnoticed outbreak of scurvy -- substituting orange juice (110 calories per eight ounces) for Coca-Cola (100 calories) won't accomplish anything.

At least high-school students will be able to buy diet soda and other artificially sweetened beverages, which have no calories but are close substitutes for regular soft drinks. The new rules deny that option to elementary and middle school students, whose only beverage choices aside from water will be drinks with about as many calories as Mountain Dew.

That decision presumably was based on concern about the alleged health hazards of artificial sweeteners, which the Food and Drug Administration and the American Dietetic Association consider safe for general consumption. Michael Jacobson, who as head of the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has long fanned these unfounded fears, told The New York Times, "I'd like to get rid of ... diet soft drinks completely" -- an ambition that subverts the ostensible goal of preventing obesity.

Despite his reservations, Jacobson said "this voluntary agreement is certainly good enough that CSPI will drop its planned lawsuit against Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Cadbury Schweppes and their bottlers." The fact that the agreement was reached under the threat of litigation suggests it was not exactly "voluntary." But John Sicher, editor and publisher of Beverage Digest, told The Associated Press the arrangement will have "virtually no impact" on the companies' bottom lines because "the sale of [sugar-sweetened] sodas in schools is a tiny, tiny part of their overall volume."

Jacob Sullum

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason magazine and a contributing columnist on Townhall.com.
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