- The Washington Times - Friday, July 18, 2003

John Banzhaf, a law professor at George Washington University with a reputation for suing the tobacco industry for billions of dollars, has threatened to sue the Seattle School Board for selling sodas from vending machines to middle and high school students. His reported intention is to fight obesity. But children’s health matters are best left in the hands of their parents.

In response to a report by the Foodservice Industry News, Mr. Banzhaf states, “I feel very strongly ? that it is terribly wrong, terribly wrong for school boards and school board members to be making money by harming the health of children.” His words are deceptive.

While the school system does contract with Coca-Cola, no Seattle student is limited to Coke machines or other vending machines to quench thirst. Unfortunately, school officials appear to be bowing to Mr. Banzhaf’s pressure, having postponed a vote regarding the Coke contract so as to reach a compromise and avoid his dubious lawsuit.

Should the lawsuit come to a head, defending a decision to keep the Coca-Cola contract could be costly for the school district, which uses the vending machine money to help fund school activities. The school cannot afford to battle lawsuits — and shouldn’t have to. If renewed, the contract would provide the district $430,000 within two months and would pay between $195,000 and $245,000 each year for several years, according to the Seattle Times. Such figures are much more than chump change for a district struggling amid a bad economy.

It is not Mr. Banzhaf’s responsibility to play parent to Seattle students. The responsibility for health decisions and school funding rests with real parents and policy-makers. Moreover, vending machines are not the problem, because, with or without their presence at school, students will be able to get sodas. In other words, despite the best intentions of school officials or lawyers, a policy that curtails the consumption of soda will not prevent many students from getting fat.

However, parents can. “[E]nsuring that children choose healthy beverages is the responsibility of parents, not lawyers,” Freddi Scott-Elliott, mother of a Seattle middle-school student, told the Seattle Post -Intelligencer. Another parent told that newspaper that he “feels it’s more important that children be educated about nutrition and healthy lifestyles,” adding that “it all comes down to individual choices.”

Indeed, it is ridiculous that school authorities feel intimidated into sacrificing a steady stream of funding because a nosy law professor wants educators to enforce a soda-free school zone. Seattle parents and school authorities should stand their ground.

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