Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's ... Soda?

The much-anticipated movie Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone opens nationwide this weekend. So does another extreme and, frankly, silly crusade against soft drinks by the "food police" at the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

Exploiting the release of the new Harry Potter movie, CSPI is escalating its anti-soft drink offensive by attacking Coca-Cola's sponsorship of the movie and promotion of the "Reading Is Fundamental" program for children.

At a time when parents and children could use a good distraction, CSPI's unfortunate message seems to be "have a Coke and a frown."

CSPI protested at the Washington, D.C., premier of the new movie, and launched a Web site goading visitors to send complaint letters to Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling.

CSPI wants Rowling to cease the Coca-Cola sponsorship deal or donate the royalties from the deal to fund "nutrition campaigns" — code words for nutty causes like CSPI's.

The anti-Coca-Cola CSPI apparently would be more than happy to accept Coke's money. No hypocrisy there.

The basis for the campaign is CSPI's characterization of soft drinks as "liquid candy" that contain "a mildly addictive stimulant drug" — i.e., caffeine. CSPI alleges that "sugar promotes obesity, a worldwide problem" and that soft drinks displace "more healthful" drinks in the diet.

"The bottom line," says CSPI, is that "liquid candy is bad for health." The more accurate bottom line, though, is that CSPI is cavalierly ignoring scientific data and common sense in favor of its self-beneficial activism.

Until earlier this year, only two studies with conflicting results explored the potential relationship between soft drink consumption and childhood obesity. That's now changed.

In April 2001, researchers from the Georgetown University-affiliated Georgetown Center for Food and Nutrition Policy presented four new studies at the Experimental Biology 2001 annual meeting.

The studies were based on analyses of data from two national surveys: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services' National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Continuing Survey of Food Intake.

The researchers reported:

— No relationship between consumption of carbonated soft drinks and obesity among 12- to 16-year-olds;

— Soft drinks did not reduce calcium consumption among 2- to 20-year-olds;

— Teens who consumed more soft drinks were as physically active as those who consumed fewer soft drinks; and

— Soft drink consumption did not harm diet quality among children and teens as measured by the USDA's Healthy Eating Index.

The researchers added, "We need to stress the vital role of physical activity for all students, not just the best athletes chosen for varsity sports teams."

Other recent research also takes the fizz out of CSPI's attack.

Michigan State University researchers reported in May 2000 at the U.S. Department of Agriculture National Nutrition Summit that soft drinks have not replaced milk in the diets of children aged 1-19. Over the last 10 years, according to the report:

— Among children ages 1-5, milk consumption significantly increased and soft drink  consumption significantly decreased;

— Among children ages 6-9, milk and soft drink consumption remained steady; and

— Among children ages 10-19, milk consumption remained steady while soft drink consumption increased.

While these data are undoubtedly not the last word on the subject of kids and soft drinks, they certainly seem to fly in the face of CSPI's claims. Worse, CSPI brazenly ignores these data in hopes that the public will rely on a naïve and misplaced intuition that soft drinks are bad simply because they contain sugar and caffeine.

No one advocates that kids drink only, or too many, soft drinks. They have no nutritional value. But based on recent scientific data and generations of soft drink consumption, there is no question that soft drinks can be a safe treat in an otherwise balanced diet.

Through an $18 million grant associated with its sponsorship of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone, Coca-Cola will place 10,000 sets of 120 to 150 new, high-quality hardcover children's books in kindergarten through third grade classrooms and community centers throughout the country.

Maybe CSPI senses such generosity is a threat to its viability. The better kids learn to read, the less likely they will be to fall for junk science foolishness.

The public is already starting to wise up to CSPI's gimmick-laden attacks. Reportedly, only about 10 people showed for the protest of the Harry Potter premiere in Washington, D.C.

Flat soda might have more zip than CSPI's tired activism.

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).