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To Some in Hartford, Coke Is a Real Evil Thing

By Stacey Stowe | The New York Times | 4/7/06
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HARTFORD, April 6 — Things are not going better with Coke these days, at least not in Connecticut. The company is being painted as a villain in the state's battle to bring healthier foods to schoolchildren.

Two Democratic leaders, Donald E. Williams Jr., the Senate president pro tem, and Richard Blumenthal, the state attorney general, held a news conference at the Capitol on Thursday to accuse the company of "unconscionable practices" in pushing sugary beverages in the schools.

A pediatrician was on hand to note the link between soda and childhood obesity and diabetes. Two mock-ups depicted oversize beverages. In one of them, three people, presumably lobbyists, were grinning behind a large bag of cash.

Mr. Williams said Coca-Cola was paying lobbyists "hundreds of thousands of dollars" to dissuade legislators from supporting a bill banning the sale of carbonated beverages, including diet sodas; sugary drinks and junk food, in the state's public schools. He said the Senate is expected to vote soon on the bill, which Mr. Williams and Gov. M. Jodi Rell, a Republican, announced with great fanfare in February.

Mr. Williams said that Coca-Cola, with vending machine contracts in 80 percent of Connecticut public schools, has threatened to rescind scholarships and academic and athletic enrichment programs if the proposal becomes law. He said a review of several contracts showed that Coca-Cola is providing financial incentives to schools to promote sodas over less profitable water and juice drinks, also sold by Coke.

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

But a lawyer for Coca-Cola, R. Bartley Halloran, said on Thursday that the company was not involved in any "nefarious activity," such as threatening districts or pushing soda on young children, noting that it does not sell soda in elementary schools.

One district cited by Mr. Williams was Southington, southwest of Hartford. He said the high school there receives a 45 percent commission on the sale of carbonated drinks, compared with a 36 percent commission on juice and water drinks.

The district's business manager, Sherri Dinello, said the high school also receives $12,000 a year from Coca-Cola as well as "marketing" bonuses, like free supplies of the company's sports drink, Powerade, in coolers bearing the product name that are placed on the sidelines of its athletic fields. She said carbonated beverages are sold at the high school only at the end of the school day.

The nutrition bill passed the legislature's joint Finance Committee this week after it was defeated 29 to 22 last Friday in the joint Appropriations Committee, where Mr. Williams said beverage and snack food lobbyists had pressed legislators to vote against it. He said that the lobbyists were paid $250,000 in the effort to defeat last year's bill.

Mr. Blumenthal said his office was examining whether Coca-Cola had used money from its tax-exempt foundation to advertise or promote products in schools and to finance scholarships and extras that are stipulated in school contracts, a practice that he said would be illegal.

Mr. Halloran, the Coca-Cola lawyer, responded by saying: "I've never heard that before. Today is the first time it was raised."

After the news conference, Mr. Williams's office distributed an article published in The Stamford Advocate in March in which a Coca-Cola lobbyist said the bill's passage would mean that schools would have to reimburse beverage companies for scoreboards and fields the companies paid for based on guarantees of certain levels of beverage sales.

But Mr. Halloran would only say on Thursday that if the legislation becomes law, "Coke might not be able to offer the same level of incentives to schools." Coca-Cola also owns Minute Maid juices and Dasani water, beverages also sold in school vending machines.

Asked if stocking the machines solely with those drinks would cause Coca-Cola to lose money, Mr. Halloran said he did not know.

A forerunner of the nutrition bill was debated for eight hours in the State House last May, with Democrats supporting the ban and Republicans opposing it. But the Democrats' position did not prevent the delivery of about 30 cases of Coke to their caucus room on the eve of that debate.

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