Thursday, December 16, 1999

We'll give our kids' eyeteeth for cola cash




BY LAURA PULFER
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Everybody knows a teen-ager's job is to drive his or her parents crazy. Loud music. Junk food. Sulking.

        And a parent's job is to spoil the fun. Make them listen to Elvis and the Beatles — maybe even Bartok, if we're feeling particularly hateful. Make them eat green vegetables, drink their milk. Give them curfews and chores. Tell them what's good for them. Early and often.

        Some of this will sink in. At least we hope so. We hope we can sneak up on them with some good habits they won't be able to shake when they get a little older. Brushing their teeth. Writing thank-you notes. Saying please and thank you.

        They like to think of it as nagging. We like to think of it as wise counsel. Good advice.

Rotten advice
        Bob Buchholz thinks we're giving kids some rotten advice. Literally. And furthermore we are helping them form some habits that will make their teeth fall out.

        He's a dentist in West Chester who has been practicing for 27 years. “I'm seeing more and more teen-agers with interproximal decay.”

        Huh?

        “That means cavities between their teeth, and I think they're getting them from sucking on pop.” Not slugging it down, but bathing their teeth in it all day long. Kinda makes him sick. Or at least mad.

        Last summer he watched as an oral surgeon removed the teeth of a young boy. “He must have been all of 16,” Dr. Buchholz says. “And there was no way his teeth could have been saved.”

        The surgeon shook his head. “I don't understand,” he said to Dr. Buchholz. “I'm seeing more and more teen-agers with bombed out teeth. I mean, the water is fluoridated, the kids have fluoride in their toothpaste. What's going on?”

        Soda pop and candy was Dr. Buchholz' diagnosis.

        “The kid nodded his head. I was right. I'm seeing children who were once cavity-free now enter their teen years,” he says. At least when Bob Buchholz was a kid, he had to get his sugar high after school. He'd slug down an 8-ounce Pepsi. Now, it comes in two-liter containers.

        And kids don't have to go to a pony keg. They can get it at school.

        And, in fact, many schools are helping to hawk soft drinks. Lakota Local Schools will receive an estimated $4.5 million over the next 13 years, thanks to an agreement with Coca-Cola. Fairfield has a 10-year, $660,000 deal with Pepsi. Deer Park, Forest Hills, Cincinnati, Mason and Lebanon also have signed “pouring contracts.” At Highlands High School in Fort Thomas, Coca-Cola paid for a new scoreboard in exchange for product exclusivity.

Tacit approval
        In the last 10 years, across the country, contracts rose from 19 in 1990 to nearly 350 today.

        The schools agree to give their partner exclusive selling rights in vending machines and concession stands at athletic and other school events. Most schools also get a commission on sales. It is very serious business. Last year, a Georgia teen-ager who wore a Pepsi shirt to his school's Coke Day was suspended for insubordination.

        Federal regulations prohibit selling carbonated drinks inside the cafeterias of schools that receive subsidized lunches, but students usually don't have to walk far to find a vending machine down the hall.

        Toledo Public Schools just signed a 10-year contract with Coke worth $4.5 million. “We're looking at putting some machines in the elementary schools,” an official said.

        “That's absurd,” Dr. Buchholz says. “Why make it easier? And why imply approval?”

        We give them the choice between milk and the officially sanctioned pop. Next we'll be asking them if they'd rather have green beans or Skittles. Broccoli or Ding Dongs. I'll bet I know what most of them would say.

        Or we could consider the idea of putting these things out of reach, at least some of the time, saying no once in a while, spoiling the fun. And we ought to tell our kids that pop will rot their teeth. If we don't, we're not doing our job.

        Laura Pulfer's column appears in the Enquirer on Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. E-mail her at laurapulfer@enquirer.com. She can be heard Monday mornings on WVXU radio (91.7 FM), and as a regular commentator on National Public Radio's Morning Edition.