As obesity and diabetes batter African-American and Latino communities, advocacy groups should be a fortress against the efforts by soda companies to defeat legislation to tax or place limits on their products. Instead, too many of them are allies of the soda industry.
The most recent example was this week, when a New York state judge struck down the 16-ounce limit on sugary drinks about to go into effect in New York City. Joining the beverage industry in opposing the law was the New York state chapter of the NAACP and the Hispanic Federation, a Northeast coalition of community service agencies.
The organizations said the law discriminated against small-business owners of color. They did have a small point because regulatory limits exempted supermarkets and convenience stores. But if civil rights groups were truly concerned about obesity, they would have appealed to convenience stores to voluntarily join the ban.
Instead, it was the old story of selling out. Just as tobacco companies still buy the silence of prominent organizations, soda companies create allies with cash. In December, Coca-Cola announced grants of $100,000 to an NAACP wellness program, $100,000 to the Urban League, and $150,000 to the National Association of Hispanic Nurses. Coke and Pepsi donate millions of dollars annually to organizations such as the United Negro College Fund, the Hispanic Scholarship Fund, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus.
The payoff is clear. Last November, voters in Richmond, Calif., rejected a penny-per-ounce soda tax. Health advocates say such taxes can dissuade the consumption of soda in unhealthy amounts, just as tobacco taxes cut smoking. But the San Jose Mercury News reported that the beverage industry spent $2.5 million to defeat the measure, enlisting the support of the local NAACP and the Black Women of Political Action, and making thousands of dollars in direct payments to influential leaders of other top black political action groups.
It is time for the selling out to stop. Nationally, more than half of African-American women and nearly half of Mexican-American women are obese, compared to a third of white women. In relative terms, Massachusetts is one of the nation’s healthiest states, yet our department of public health says diabetes has almost doubled in the last decade and obesity will soon pass smoking as the leading preventable cause of death.
That is why Massachusetts should finally enact Governor Patrick’s long-standing proposal to end sales tax exemptions for soda and candy. It would be a victory on several levels. Beyond revenues, the state can model a new morality. Patrick is not the first or only African-American political leader to propose taxes on soda — former New York Governor David Paterson and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter tried and failed.
But as a former Coca-Cola executive, Patrick sends the signal that leaders need not be soda supplicants forever. In an interview Thursday, Patrick said, “I was talking with a friend of mine from the beverage industry and he said, ‘So Deval, you’re at it again. You know you’re going to to lose.’ I asked why. He said, ‘Because we have more money.’ I don’t view sugar itself as an evil, but I thought that was a sad commentary on where we are in public health.”
It is also refreshing that the beverage lobby, while able to stall Patrick on Beacon Hill, has so far not dragged the likes of the NAACP into the gutter. Both Juan Cofield, president of the New England NAACP and Michael Curry, president of the NAACP’s Boston chapter, said they support Patrick’s proposal.
“Soda is not a food,” Cofield said. “It doesn’t provide nourishment.”
“We need to do what we can to drive behavior,” said Curry, who is also legislative director for the Massachusetts League of Community Health Centers. “People are dying from obesity.”
If Curry and Cofield stay true to those words, there will be two fewer leaders the soda industry can count on to sacrifice their communities to obesity and diabetes.
Derrick Z. Jackson can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.