Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Citizen Chip

My son Daniel (or Chip) has a school project that is attracting a lot of attention. He is campaigning for a law to ban the sale of softdrinks in all schools all the way to high school. The project has reached the halls of Congress. Last year, bills were filed in both Houses of Congress and even some sanggunians. While most of the reaction is positive not everyone is happy about his project. There are insinuations that this is a scheme to make Chip popular or that we are using him to advance our own political agenda.

Multiple Intelligence International School has a project called “Kid’s Can” where they think of ways kids can make a difference in the world.  So when he was in the first grade we asked him what he wanted to do for the project. At first he said he wanted to stop people from smoking. My wife and I thought that project might be too difficult for a first grader. So we asked him if there was anything else he wanted to work on. He said he wanted to stop kids from drinking softdrinks.

This sounded like a good idea. It is a serious health issue that affects millions of children. Certainly, a child should be able to raise this issue.

Chip started school in the U.S. where there was (and still is) a national effort to address the obesity epidemic. Chip’s early school experience exposed him to the idea of a healthy diet. Sodas and other sugary drinks were banned in school. Junk food was banned in school. The health effects of soda were on the national agenda and were prominently discussed in national and local politics.
Then Chip returned to the Philippines and saw almost everyone drinking softdrinks. His relatives were drinking it. It was so widely advertised that the consumption of these drinks did not seem to pose any serious health risks.

This is why Chip feels strongly about his campaign. It is an issue that directly affects him and other children and one that he was already familiar with at the age of 5.

We thought the obvious solution was to enact a law to ban the sale of soda. So we studied the issue, found model legislation from the US, and studied the risks associated with drinking soda.
I used to drink soda (my refrigerator used to be stocked with liters of Coke). But when we studied the many studies conducted on the health effects of soda, I stopped.

In the first grade, Chip managed to have Representative Kaka Bag-ao and Walden Bello to file his bill in the House of Representatives. The year after, Senator Miriam Defensor-Santiago filed her version in the Senate. Other lawmakers, like Representatives Erin Tanada co-authored the measure. Some sanggunians filed similar bills in their jurisdictions.

Chip approached legislators both at the national and local levels. He spent time with the media because he wanted to make sure that the ban can be enacted.

None of the bills became law. This year, all he is asking is that we vote on the basis of issues. He hopes we elect legislators with an agenda for children’s health.

We raise our children to be aware of politics. We pass by the House of Representatives everyday and we see interest groups demonstrating outside its premises. We talk to Chip about legislation. We discuss the reproductive health bill, the environmental costs of mining, the conflict situation in Mindnao, the state of overseas workers, racism, gender bias, and the importance of elections, among others.

Chip will not always understand every aspect of the legal system or the issues that we discuss with him. Sometimes he gets confused. But we do not think that he is too young to start learning about the issues that divide the country, or the issues that need immediate resolution.

Chip thinks children’s health is important. So do we. It is our duty to help him in his crusade, not to dissuade him. The single most important lesson I want him to learn is that we should always do the right thing no matter what obstacles are thrown our way. It is not in our nature to sit quietly and allow this threat to continue especially because we know the dangers posed by the soda industry.

Chip is not proposing anything new. These bans are in place in other countries. The Department of Education bans the sale of softdrinks in public schools. Other schools (such as Ateneo and Silliman University) have banned the sale of softdrinks years ago. Existing bans are obviously concerned about the risks of soda. Why not enact a law that stretches the ban to protect all students?

We are very proud of Chip. No matter how this crusade ends, he will always be the kid who sparked the discussion on the health risks of soda in the Philippines. He has already convinced some people to stop drinking soda, including Coke’s biggest fan—his grandmother Lorenza.

We can disagree on the proper solution to this issue. We can talk about our proposals in a constructive manner. Our disappointment in the negative responses comes from the obvious refusal to study the merits of the campaign. Is there evidence that shows the harmful effects of soda? Instead, there are some who will cast aspersions or assume the worst.

This campaign is not about my son. It is about the fact that we do not regulate a dangerous product to which our children have access. It is about the fact that the coming elections will have a bearing on how we address this problem. The issue is children’s health.

Chip is doing the right thing. He is engaging the system because we taught him that the system works. We will support him in this campaign as long as he wants to pursue it. But we hope that we can have an enlightened debate on the issue and not a mudslinging, name-calling, uninformed, and tactless squabble. We can, in other words, act like citizens.

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