Coke's youth exercise drive moves on despite criticism

ATLANTA: Coca-Cola is launching the second phase of a new campaign designed to encourage middle school children to exercise.

ATLANTA: Coca-Cola is launching the second phase of a new campaign designed to encourage middle school children to exercise.

The program comes at a time when the soft drink industry has been criticized for pushing soda in schools while obesity among children climbs.

Bill Marks, VP, public and media relations at Coke, said the new "Step With It! program is not a response to recent headlines about childhood obesity.

Its part of a long-term effort Coke started last year to "bring additional value to our educational partners. The idea was that parents, teachers, and students understood the value we placed on out partnerships with schools, he said.

Coke announced in March 2001 that it was forming an education advisory council to look at how it could work with schools on education initiatives.

At the time, the company also agreed to make non-commercial signage available for the fronts of vending machines put in schools.

Previously, Coke had also agreed to sell a range of drinks, including non-carbonated juice drinks and water, in its school vending machines, and to limit sales at certain times and locations (PRWeek, March 19, 2001).

The Step With It! program was tested this spring in Atlanta, Philadelphia and Houston.

The latest phase expands the program to 10 cities, and hopes to reach 50,000 students, Marks said. The program encourages students to walk 10,000 steps a day. Coke is giving students pedometers to keep track of their walking.

Coke PR efforts for the program will focus on local media, Marks added.

Coke has been working with Washington, DC-based Widmeyer Communications on educational issues.

Critics of Coke, along with others who have spoken out on the child obesity issue, had mixed reactions to Step With It!

"Anything that promotes physical activity is a good step, said Elena Serrano, an extension specialist and assistant professor at Virginia Tech University, who has looked at the childhood obesity issue.

Michael Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, said, "The food industry's strategy on obesity is to talk about exercise, not the junk they're producing. Of the Coke program, he said, "The major thrust is to distract attention from the junkiness of its product."

Concerns about soft drinks in schools have prompted some schools in California to ban vending machines. Parent groups have raised concerns about schools offering exclusive rights to companies such as Coke in return for sponsorship opportunities.

Marks said the Step With It! effort is part of a "different approach to how we interact with schools."

If the extended pilot is successful, Coke will consider expanding the program further in 2003.

Jacobson doesn't think any program extension will divert critics of soft drinks in schools.

Of Coke, he said, "They will try to cover themselves in this exercise camouflage the way the tobacco industry supported the arts."

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