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Have a Coke and a Waistline

Let's "grab a Coke and a smile" this week as Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee (search) demanded proof that vending machines lead to childhood obesity before permitting the state to restrict the machines in schools.

Amid the hysteria about overweight adolescents, the Arkansas Board of Education is looking for ways to reduce children's calorie intake, including targeting school vending machines. 

"There are no studies that I know that clearly say if a kid has access to a soda machine that he's going to be fatter than one who doesn't have access," Huckabee said, according to an Associate Press report. 

State officials who support restricting vending machines allege that Huckabee is being ingenuous.

"I think it's really pretty much a basic that candy bars and sugar colas are not conducive to good health," said state representative Jay Bradford, D-White Hall, to the AP. "And I don't think it takes a lot of research to realize that adds great amount of weight to certain individuals," added Bradford. 

So which makes more sense — Gov. Huckabee's call for proof of harm, or Rep. Bradford's reliance on "conventional wisdom?" 

Consider the results of a survey conducted by the National Family Opinion WorldGroup Share of Intake Panel (search) (NFO SIP), as reported by Dr. Michael Ginevan in the April 2004 issue of The Journal of Pediatrics. 

The NFO SIP surveys 12,000 persons per year. Participants keep two-week diaries of all beverages consumed, excluding tap water, and the location of where these were consumed. 

In a survey conducted during the 2001-2002 school year, a demographically balanced sample of 2,716 students ages 12 to 18 years maintained beverage consumption diaries from September through May. The study reported that the average per capita consumption of non-diet carbonated soft drinks from school vending machines was 2.5 ounces per week — about 31 calories per week. Assuming for the sake of argument that those 31 calories were never burned as energy and were automatically turned into fat, it would take more than two years of such consumption at that rate to produce one pound of fat.  

Given that children generally have rapid metabolisms (search) and are constantly growing and developing, the notion that we should worry about children consuming 31 calories per week from school vending machines seems to be absurd. The NFO SIP survey reported that only 20 percent of students actually drank beverages from vending machines. Only 9 percent drank non-diet beverages. Among the 20 percent who drank vending machine beverages, the average consumption was 12.5 ounces per week — about one can or 150 calories per week for consumers of non-diet beverages. One can of soda per week isn't going to cause weight or health problems even among the most minimally active healthy children. 

The NFO SIP survey was conducted with an unrestricted grant from the National Soft Drink Association (search), so some will undoubtedly view these results with some degree of skepticism. 

That doesn't really matter, though.

The ultimate validity of the NFO SIP survey isn't the issue —  more research versus factually unsupported demonization of school vending machines is. Vending machines in schools provide benefits to businesses and schools (jobs and revenue) and to students (on-campus convenience and a variety of beverages, including juices and juice drinks, milk-based drinks, water, diet and regular soft drinks, and sports drinks). The NFO SIP survey seems to indicate that school vending machines do not pose a threat to children's health.

If there is evidence to the contrary, let's see it and debate it before jumping to rash and truly harmful conclusions.

Steven Milloy is the publisher of JunkScience.com, an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute and the author of Junk Science Judo: Self-Defense Against Health Scares and Scams (Cato Institute, 2001).

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