Columns » John Brummett

Might sugar make kids fat?

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As moves go, this one was smooth.Gov. Mike Huckabee announced that he was recommending that the state Board of Education adopt a wide array of good-health initiatives for public schools that had been forwarded to it seven months ago by the Child Health Advisory Council. The press he got was pretty good, nowhere better than on the wire dispatch of The Associated Press in Little Rock, which trumpeted as follows: “Gov. Mike Huckabee doesn’t have as much heft as he once did, but what remains was thrown Thursday firmly behind an effort to better the health of school children in Arkansas.” Armstrong Williams couldn’t have done as well by the No Child Left Behind Act. Lost in the sleight-of-hand of this public relations masterpiece was only the main substance. The governor had interjected himself needlessly between the advisory council and the state Board of Education to kill the main recommendation. That was the one to require healthy choices in vending machines at middle schools and high schools and to prohibit kids in those grades from engaging those devices for soda pop or candy until an hour after lunch. Beneath the fanfare of the governor’s endorsement of the vast majority of the recommendations was his declaration that we need to take a couple of years to study whether Cokes and candy make school kids fat. He will make worldwide news if he finds that children do not run a greater risk of obesity if they inhale sugar. Huckabee could have let the board act on all the recommendations without his interposition. Or he could have waited until after the board had acted and declined to sign off on any regulation he found objectionable. But he saw a better way to oblige both his political interest and the soft drink industry’s extensive contracts in Arkansas school districts. It was to make a spectacle of embracing everything except the vending machine thing. It was to hope the abundance of what he endorsed would overpower any conspicuousness of what he didn’t. It seemed to work. He didn’t get to be president of the Arkansas Baptist Convention and governor of Arkansas by lacking political dexterity. I am obliged to remind you what the governor e-mailed to me in June when I first jumped his case for having unsuccessfully lobbied the advisory council not to include the vending machine restriction in the first place. He said, “We can ban a lot of things, but there are no definitive studies I’ve seen indicating that banning soft drink machines will impact childhood obesity levels.” Banning them? Now there’s an idea. But all the advisory council wanted to do was require bottlers to provide a mix of healthier choices and for machines to be kept off limits to kids long enough not to ruin their lunch. Huckabee said then that this should be a matter of local school district control. The issue here is simple economic pressure. Soft drink bottlers enjoy lucrative contracts with the state’s too-many school districts. Some of these contracts around the country provide bonuses to schools for meeting consumption quotas. Some of these contracts have years to run. Rex Nelson, the governor’s communications aide, told me that, yes, the governor was aware that “some districts do have contractual obligations that legally bind them.” He said the status of those contracts would be among the matters studied. He said the governor anticipates that the rules on vending machines will become more restrictive “as we move along.” I, too, am sensitive to these contracts. That’s why I thought the governor should have embraced the soft drink and candy restrictions with a simple and obvious provision that they would apply only upon the termination of any ongoing contracts. But then we wouldn’t have been able to pursue this epic study of whether inhaling sugar can contribute to weight gain in middle school and high school students.

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