Public health crusaders are off to rescue our children from the grips of what they’re calling a national "obesity epidemic." ‘Out With Soda, In With Granola!’...Fat Police Target Schools

We’ve been warned against butter-soaked movie popcorn, cheese-smothered Mexican dishes, biggie-sized fast food, and the sinister trans fatty acids, but a majority of Americans are still overweight. Now, public health crusaders are off to rescue our children from the grips of what they’re calling a national "obesity epidemic."

Armed with a surgeon general report claiming that the number of obese children in this country has doubled in the past two decades, state and local legislators, health officials and school administrators have taken to the schools to ban the sale of carbonated beverages.

Last month, Los Angeles — home to the nation’s second largest school district — voted unanimously to ban the sale of soda in its 677 public schools starting in 2004. A sponsor of the soda ban, school board member Marlene Canter, alleges that, in addition to obesity, soda can be linked to lower test scores and juvenile diabetes. Canter also claims that a girl who drinks two cans of soda a week is three times as likely to suffer broken bones. Imagine that "scientific" study: "Suzy, before falling from that tall ladder, did you drink any soda? Yes? I think we’re on to something."

Los Angeles’ soda ban, affecting 748,000 students, follows a California state law passed last year banning the sale of soda and so-called "junk" food in all public elementary schools beginning in 2004. Texas also recently banned the sale of soda and "junk" food in its schools, as did the city of Stamford, Connecticut. Health officials and school administrators hope these, and a number of similar bans in other municipalities, will lead to a nationwide trend.

Soft drink manufacturers, who argue "it’s the couch, not the can" that is responsible for overweight youth, are not alone in finding a ban on soda sales difficult to swallow. Educators point out that schools stand to lose an enormous amount of revenue from lost soda sales and cancelled soda company contracts, which typically fund after school activities, such as dances and pep rallies, as well as band uniforms and school equipment.

The average Los Angeles high school makes approximately $40,000 per year from selling soft drinks, with larger schools in the district making as much as $88,000 annually. Charleston, South Carolina’s school system is weighing a ban on soda sales despite recently signing a five-year $8.1 million vending machine contract with Pepsi. It is ironic that eliminating such sales will diminish the very programs aimed at getting students off the proverbial couch.

There is no evidence that banning the school availability of soda will do anything to reduce the number of overweight youths in America. Kids will still be able to buy sodas off campus, drink them at home, or bring them to school in their lunchboxes. Not to mention that soda is but one element of the high caloric intake of an overweight teenager. There also may be some unintended, entrepreneurial consequences from the soda prohibition. As one high school student told Los Angeles’ Daily News, "I’m gonna bring sodas and start selling them — underground sodas!"

The public health community’s obsession with what we eat and how we look is not new. While health groups once lambasted the Barbie doll and fashion magazines for setting an impossibly high bar for impressionable young girls to follow, the pendulum has now clearly swung the other way. According to the latest government studies, even heart throbs like Russell Crowe and Tom Cruise can be defined as overweight.

Today, sodas and "junk" food are being banned in schools, lawmakers are debating "fat taxes," and high visibility, low logic class action lawsuits are being filed against fast food companies. Tomorrow, a new generation of Americans will graduate from high school having been taught how to point the finger at others and avoid taking any personal responsibility. At this rate, what will the incentive be for anyone to get up off the couch?

September 20, 2002
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