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Jewish World Review Oct. 27, 2003 / 1 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Lenore Skenazy

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Consumer Reports

Some things don't go
better with Coke | Heyyyy there, kiddies! Denty the Tooth here to remind you to brush your teeth and drink your Coke!

I'm kidding, of course. That's not the motto of the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry. Yet.

But considering that the group just took a cool $1 million in bribe ... er ... grant money from Coca-Cola, you figure it won't be long before we're hearing all about the oral-hygiene benefits of a soda a day. Or at least not hearing anything about its enamel-eating properties.

Coke, meanwhile, comes off looking pearly white - friend to dentists everywhere. "Innocence by association," is how Michael Jacobson, director of the the Center for Science in the Public Interest, puts it.

Naturally, the academy, representing more than 5,000 kiddie dentists, vociferously denies any suggestion of selling out to Coke. "This money involves no endorsement ... and no sponsorship," says Dr. Paul Reggiardo, the association's president. His group just happens to be the lucky beneficiary of "a large corporation interested in promoting good oral health."

Yup, that's Coke all right: toothbrush to the world.

Now, if one were just the leeeeeeast bit cynical - or breathing - one might suspect Good Citizen Coke of having an interest besides oral health.

Like fiscal health. Profit. And cynics might go so far as to suspect Coke of being particularly interested in making ever bigger profits off children, whose soda consumption is at an all-time high and getting higher.

A cynic like that might ask herself, "Well, if Coke wants to sell more soda to kids but doesn't want to look like it's pushing a nutrition-free, tooth-corroding, chub-inducing swill that costs a few cents to make and is sold at obscene markups, what would it do to look wholesome and pure?"

And that cynic might reply (quietly, so she wouldn't look like she was talking to herself), "Why, it would get in good with an organization that helps kids! One that is beyond reproach. Like ... hmmm ... the National PTA!"

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Too nefarious a plan, you say? Or perhaps too obvious? Consider the fact that in January, the National Parent Teachers Association announced a new "proud sponsor." Hint: It's Coke.

"We do a lot of things in the community and worldwide to support education," says Kari Bjorhus, spokeswoman at Coca-Cola, explaining why its bottlers decided to shower cash on the PTA. This arrangement has nothing to do with soda - heavens, no! - and everything to do with helping the PTA finance a program that encourages more parental involvement. It is just plain good, good, good.

Sensing a certain suspicion on my part, the spokeswoman asked archly, "Do you think certain companies should be prohibited from contributing to certain issues?"

Now, that is a very good question. Because with Coke paying off the PTA, the PTA actually does have more money (it won't say how much) to do good works.

On the other hand, one of those good works is not likely to be the launching of a campaign against soda in the public schools. More's the pity. "A lot of people have been fighting to get soft drinks out of the schools," notes Harvard psychiatrist and child advocate Dr. Alvin Poussaint. "So for the National PTA to team up with Coke looks like it contradicts their stated mission" - to protect and nurture kids at school.

Whether or not to serve soda "is a decision that is made on a local level," says Vicki Loise, the National PTA's development director. In other words, her group is not about to speak out against Coke - or Pepsi - even as these drinks infiltrate more and more schools.

And that's the real problem with corporate sponsorship: Not that it demands outright endorsement. The PTA does not have to say, "Drink Coke!" for its dough.

But by taking Coke's gold, the PTA is far more likely to turn a blind eye on soda issues. And simply by cozying up to Coke, it burnishes the cola's reputation.

If Coke was really so bad for kids, would the National PTA take its money? Would the American Academy of Pediatric Dentists?

Apparently, they would. And they did.

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JWR contributor Lenore Skenazy is a columnist for The New York Daily News. Comment by clicking here.

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