April 7, 2006
By CHRISTOPHER KEATING, Courant Staff Writer
There's a Coke problem at the state Capitol.
When Republican Gov. M. Jodi Rell and Senate President Pro Tem Donald Williams, D-Brooklyn, announced a deal two months ago that would ban soda in public schools, the controversial issue appeared resolved.
But the lobbyists and attorneys for Coca-Cola have been working feverishly to defeat the measure, thus keeping alive the long-running saga in which obesity, junk food, children and political interests collide.
That saga entered a new stage Thursday, with Williams and Attorney General Richard Blumenthal charging that the Connecticut Coca-Cola Bottling Company was offering a financial incentive to public schools to push its "junk soda" drinks. Sales commissions that public schools receive are at least 25 percent higher for soda than for the beverage maker's healthier products, they said.
"It is absolutely outrageous for Coke to push the nutritionally empty, junk soda drinks on our children at the expense of water and fruit juice drinks that they also own and market," Williams said.
"We have uncovered facts that show that Coca-Cola is actually providing greater financial incentives to push unhealthy beverages that contribute to the epidemic of childhood obesity and other problems that lead to lifelong health problems."
Describing the practice as "a scandal" that must be stopped, Williams released copies of the detailed contracts the bottling company has with the Bridgeport and Southington schools showing that the highest amounts are paid to the schools from Coke in cans and bottles.
Coke's local attorney, R. Bartley Halloran, responded that the Bridgeport contract has expired and that the school system is currently operating without a contract. He said, however, that Williams was correct that the Bridgeport schools are receiving 38 percent of the sales for soda and 30 percent for all other drinks. For example, for a bottle of Coke that costs $1 in a Bridgeport machine, Coke would get 62 cents, and the schools would get 38 cents.
Halloran, however, said Coke has been trying to change the terms to a flat rate of 35 percent for all drinks, eliminating any incentive. That effort, he said, has been in the works since the contract expired on Aug. 31, 2005, long before Williams' criticism.
Coke has had contracts with the public schools for years and should not be forced to "change the contract at the barrel of a shotgun," Halloran said. The firm has always operated legally with the schools and now "they're somehow a villain," he said. "It's mystifying."
The soda ban bill was vetoed last year by Rell, who raised concerns that it usurped local control for school boards. But after changes this year that provide incentives for more nutritious meals, the bill was brought back. Lobbyists temporarily scuttled it last week in one committee, but it was resurrected by another committee this week in an amendment.
The issue is being lobbied heavily by the firm of Sullivan & LeShane, one of the best-known lobbying firms at the Capitol. One of the principals, Paddi LeShane, has been walking around the Legislative Office Building lately with a jumbo-size, hard-to-miss, red Coca-Cola cup.
Blumenthal said he will be investigating whether Coke is considering withdrawing scholarship money if the bill is passed and soda is banned in the schools.
"Our children should not be held hostage by Coke as it threatens to rescind scholarships and academic and enrichment programs, simply to stop laws requiring healthier drinks in schools," Blumenthal said.
Saying he would welcome any investigation, Halloran said the scholarships and the sales are not tied together.
"The Coke Foundation is completely separated," Halloran said. "Nobody is suggesting that would change. To think they would coordinate it is just not true."
The fate of the soda ban bill this year is up against the tight deadline of a short legislative session that ends May 3. House Speaker James Amann, D-Milford, says he is concerned that the debate could last as long as eight hours, which was how much time was spent last year in the longest debate of the session.
Reprinted with permission of the Hartford Courant.
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