Democrats Accuse Coca-Cola of Pressuring Schools
By Susan Haigh
Associated Press
April 6, 2006

HARTFORD, Conn. --Two top state Democrats on Wednesday accused the Coca-Cola Co. of pushing sugary sodas on Connecticut students as lawmakers again consider banning soft drinks from public schools.

Senate President Donald E. Williams Jr., D-Brooklyn, and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal on Wednesday released contracts between Coke and two schools, which include financial incentives to fill vending machines with soda rather than water or juice.

Bridgeport schools receive a 38 percent commission for each $1 bottle of carbonated soda sold, but only 30 percent for bottled water, according to a 16-page contract provided to reporters. In Southington, the schools receive a 45 percent commission for soda sales and 36 percent for selling bottle of Dasani water.

Williams and Blumenthal claim such agreements show a need to ban Coke and other sodas from schools, especially as policy-makers try to combat childhood obesity.

"It's a cynical marketing ploy," Williams said. "They want to brand into the minds of our children the Coca-Cola name and brand."

But R. Bartley Halloran, an attorney for Coke, said the contracts with Bridgeport and Southington are five years old. The Bridgeport deal has expired and Southington schools have since banned soda in their machines, he said. Democrats, however, claim soda is still sold during after-school hours in Southington and that the Bridgeport contract with Coca-Cola remains in effect.

A call was left seeking comment with Bridgeport's attorney.

Halloran said he was not aware of any schools in Connecticut currently receiving better financial incentives to sell soda, but acknowledged that soda sales give the company a larger profit margin.

According to Coca-Cola, 75 percent of beverages sold in the state in 2004 were non-carbonated or diet drinks, including water, fruit juices, teas and sport drinks. The company believes the amount climbed to nearly 85 percent in 2006. Coke claims carbonated beverage machines are not available to elementary schoolchildren, but the machines may be available in teachers lounges.

Coke also said carbonated beverages are not available to middle school students during the school day. They are available to high schoolers 30 minutes after the last lunch hour.

Williams and Blumenthal also accused Coca-Cola of threatening to rescind scholarships and money for athletic and academic programs if the legislature bans soda in schools. Halloran said the company is trying to protect its existing contracts.

"We intend to insist on upon our contractual rights," Halloran said. "Don't change the deal after it's been made."

Blumenthal said his office plans to investigate whether Coke's charitable foundation, which gives grants to schools, is also pressuring the schools to stock soda in vending machines.

Halloran said the school districts can re-negotiate what products to stock in the machines after the current contracts expire.

Lawmakers have been battling for several years to ban soda in public schools. There have also been attempts to ban unhealthy snacks. Last year, Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, vetoed a bill that that would have banned most soft drinks and junk food from Connecticut schools.

Rell said the effort to impose state standards on local school districts for nutrition and physical education "undermines the control and responsibility of parents with school-aged children."

This year, the governor has said she will back a new version of the bill, which would allow schools to only sell 100 percent fruit juice, milk, water and drinks without added sugar and sweeteners. It would also provide extra money for the school lunch program to those schools that offer healthy snacks identified by the state Education Department.

The Appropriations Committee defeated the bill on March 31. Another bill remains alive that includes the same language, Democrats said.

Thirteen-year-old Josh Block, who was shadowing a state senator for the day, watched reporters interview Coke's attorney. The Weston Middle School student said soda machines at his school sell Snapple products as well as flavored seltzer, water and milk.

"There are lots of kids that want soda," he said. "It doesn't matter much to me." Block was surprised by the legislature's intense interest in the issue.

"I think parents should discuss it with kids," he said. "I don't think the state should make the decision."

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