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Soda pop industry helps kill junk food bill

By BRAD CAIN, The Associated Press
Issue: 5/7/05
Hofstra University

SALEM, Ore. (AP) — When Sen. Vicki Walker watered down a bill to ban the sale of soda pop and other sugary snacks in Oregon schools, she said she wanted to protect local schools' ability to decide such matters.

Left unsaid, however, was the fact the Eugene Democrat and other lawmakers got campaign money last fall from a soda pop industry group that has lobbied against the junk food ban in the 2005 Legislature.

Walker and two other members of the Senate Education Committee that rewrote the bill each got $2,000 campaign contributions from the Oregon Soft Drink Association, which gave a total of $91,000 to lawmakers last fall. The other committee members who got $2,000 were Sen. Ryan Deckert, D-Beaverton, and Sen. Jeff Kruse, R-Roseburg.

Walker, who is considering running against Democratic Gov. Ted Kulongoski next year, said the campaign money had nothing to do with her decision to delete the ban on pop and candy sales.

"That wasn't the issue at all," said Walker, who is chairwoman of the Senate education panel. "The issue involves all the foods we serve to children. It's broader than just banning soda pop and vending machine candy in schools."

While the campaign contributions to Walker and the others are legal, a spokeswoman for a campaign watchdog group said the donations should raise eyebrows.

"With campaign contributions, the special interests are buying access to lawmakers. Once they've got access, they can build a relationship. And I think that does influence how votes go," said Andi Miller of Common Cause Oregon.

A health care activist who pushed for the soda pop and junk food ban in schools said she thinks soft drink industry lobbyists were instrumental in persuading the senators to kill the ban.

"Who knows exactly what goes on behind the scenes, but we believe they played a significant role in this," said Mary Lou Hennrich, executive director of the Community Health Partnership.

Rob Douglas, a lobbyist for the Oregon Soft Drink Association, referred inquiries on the matter to Kathy Kaiser, area manager of the Coca-Cola Bottling Co. of Oregon.

A phone message to Kaiser wasn't immediately returned Friday, but in testimony before Walker's Senate Education Committee in March, Kaiser said the state "should not legislate eating habits."

"Parents and local schools should be the ones to determine what students should be eating," Kaiser said in her prepared testimony.

Advocates of a junk food ban said soda pop and other sugary snacks are a leading cause of childhood obesity and that soft drink industry representatives have been fighting bills around the country to limit their ability to market their products in schools.

Just this past week, in Connecticut, about a dozen industry lobbyists were sent to the Capitol in Hartford to try to scuttle a similar bill that's pending in that state's Legislature, according to one activist.

"The place was crawling with pro-soda pop people," said Lucy Nolan of End Hunger Connecticut, a group which has been trying to get junk food out of schools in favor of healthier foods.

A spokeswoman for a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group that's often been called the "food police" said it appears lawmakers in Oregon "did cave in to the soft drink manufacturers."

"They started out with a terrific bill, and they ended up with nothing," said Margo Wootan of the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Walker disgrees.

While the new version of the bill bans no foods or beverages, she said, it requires local schools to adopt a "wellness policy" that includes goals for nutrition education and physical activities.

"I just think this is a very thoughtful approach," the Eugene lawmaker said. "To me the question is, how are we going to get parents and children involved in the discussion of childhood obesity?"

Further, Walker said backers of the original bill "just wanted to ban something" and that doing so would have "accomplished nothing."

But a California health care advocate notes that Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has come out in favor of a bill to ban soft drinks in all public schools and that the soda pop industry "is the only major opposition to this bill."

"That should come as no surprise to anybody," said Harold Goldstein of the California Center for Public Health Advocacy. "They want to keep selling their products to our children in public schools while they are a captive audience."

Despite the apparent death of Oregon's ban on soda pop and other school snacks in the 2005 Legislature, backers of the effort aren't giving up.

Hennrich, the Community Health Partnership representative, noted that it's taken years for legislatures in other states to overcome industry opposition to enact laws curtailing the marketing of those products.

"We have an epidemic of obesity going on," she said. "We need to have a statewide standard for what kids eat and drink in schools."

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