Ethics @ Work: Pepsi-Cola leaves the schoolyard

Even a small risk can be worrisome if it is multiplies by hundreds of millions of children.

Last week, PepsiCo announced with great fanfare that they would no longer sell heavily sugared Pepsi-Cola in vending machines in schools around the world with students under 18. The announcement follows a 2006 initiative in which both Pepsi and Coca-Cola decided to refrain from selling their heavily sugared drinks in schools in the US. Both decisions follow pressure from various health groups that say the sugared drinks are unhealthy, particularly for children and teens.
The basic idea is sound. It is a basic ethical and legal principle that it is wrong to sell harmful products. The main problem is if the hazard is unknown to the consumer. But the principle applies also if the consumer is somehow lacking in effective judgment. Examples would be children, addicts or the uneducated.
Baby-formula producers absorbed in the past very harsh and justified criticism for their policies of selling infant formula in undeveloped areas where the mothers were not adequately equipped to understand and deal with hazards of improper preparation or interrupted supply.
A more delicate situation applies when the product is sold mostly to people for whom it is safe but there is a small population for whom it is harmful. It seems unfair to deprive the entire population of contact glue just because a small number of idiots sniff it.
One common way of dealing with this issue is to take reasonable steps to limit the danger to vulnerable populations: at the very least to avoid actively promoting it to these groups. For example, in places where sniffing glue is a major problem, irritants can be added that deter sniffing without significantly affecting legitimate uses of the product.
So assuming that sugared drinks are a hazard to youngsters, Pepsi’s policy is indeed appropriate. However, the facts of the case need to be examined. There is extensive research on the health effects of sugared drinks, and a “smoking gun” has yet to be found regarding obesity, diabetes or heart disease. That doesn’t mean that we can assume the product is safe, but it does seem to indicate that any dangers are not overwhelming.
On the other hand, most experts are convinced that heavily sugared drinks are bad for youngsters and can encourage bad habits for adults. Even a small risk can be worrisome if it is multiplies by hundreds of millions of children. There is also an educational consideration involved: School is a place where healthy habits are encouraged and inculcated.
My feeling is that the ideal balance in this factual situation is that adopted by Pepsi’s rival, Coca-Cola. Coca-Cola’s policy is to not actively market the heavily sugared drinks to schools but to leave the final decision in the hands of the school administration.
Given the inconclusive nature of the evidence at this stage, I believethe best place to apply pressure is not to ask the producer tounilaterally refrain from selling his product. Instead, it is toprevent active encouragement on the part of the producer and to askeducators to actually limit access to the product.
Pepsi’s actions are praiseworthy and even bold, given that passing upon the school market may limit brand identification among adults in thefuture. However, it may be that it is enough in this case to avoidactive marketing to schools and to leave it to educators to make thefinal decision on access.
Asher Meir is research director atthe Business Ethics Center of Jerusalem, an independent institute inthe Jerusalem College of Technology (Machon Lev).