Pop out

Jacob Sullum

5/10/2006 12:05:00 AM - 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."

Which makes you wonder how much of an impact the changes will have on students' waistlines. As grounds for hope, Jacobson cites a study in the March issue of Pediatrics that he says showed "increased soft-drink consumption contributes to obesity."

By delivering free diet soft drinks to the homes of 53 teenagers (a method Jacobson certainly would not approve) and encouraging them to "Think Before You Drink," the researchers achieved a dramatic 82 percent reduction in consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages. Even so, there was no significant overall difference in weight change between this group and a control group of 50 teenagers who did not receive diet drinks or counseling. A statistically significant effect was apparent only among the fattest kids, who lost a small amount of weight.

Since the intervention in this study was much more elaborate and expensive than the changes Bill Clinton is trumpeting, there's little reason to believe fiddling with the drink selection in school vending machines will make students noticeably thinner. They will still be free to eat what they want and to buy the beverages of their choice off campus, which is where they consume most of their calories anyway.

So will schools start searching students' bags for contraband soda? Will CSPI threaten a new lawsuit to establish soda-free zones around schools? The soft drink companies may yet regret cutting this deal.