As Civil Rights Groups Enter Soda Ban Debate, Industry Ties Are Highlighted

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Opposition by two civil rights groups to New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed ban of super-sized sodas and sugary drinks has triggered scrutiny of their ties to the beverage industry.

The ban, set to take effect on March 12 in city restaurants, stadiums and cinemas, was met by formal opposition at a New York court hearing on Wednesday by the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People and the Hispanic Federation — both well-known nonprofits dedicated to advancing the rights of minorities. The American Beverage Association has filed suit to block Bloomberg’s plan, contending the mayor lacks the authority to enact a policy that it maintains will cause small-business owners to lose sales to drug and grocery stores. Many such stores are owned by minorities.

James Brandt, a lawyer for the association, argued in court that other sugar-laden drinks like milkshakes are missing from the ban, and highlight its arbitrary nature. The 16-ounce limit has “no justification in science,” he said. But Thomas Merrill of the City Law Department countered that, with more than 20 percent of New Yorkers clinically obese, “there is ample evidence that there is an obesity epidemic being driven by sugary beverages.”[more]

Obesity rates run higher than average among both Latinos and blacks. In 2013, caring for obesity-related illnesses will cost New York City at least an estimated $4.7 billion.

But the sudden involvement by the NAACP and the Hispanic Federation moved the debate into territory beyond health and economic issues. In their brief opposing the measure, the organizations acknowledged obesity as a significant issue among blacks and Hispanics, yet urged the city to create a more holisitic solution and increase physical education programs in schools. Hispanic Federation President Jose Calderon called the pending legislation “short-sighted” and “senseless.”

“The reality is, people can still buy multiple sodas,” he said. “If you’re going to be serious about addressing issues, we need to bring all different facets together to work collaboratively.”

But The New York Times and other news organizations noted both groups’ ties to the beverage industry. As highlighted by The Root:

— The NAACP has close ties to big soft-drink companies including Coca-Cola which has donated tens of thousands of dollars to a health education program created by the group.

— The former president of the Hispanic Federation, Lillian Rodriguez Lopez, recently took a job at Coca-Cola.

The city’s health commissioner, Dr. Thomas A. Farley, said he was “disappointed” at the NAACP’s stance. “African-Americans are suffering disproportionately in this crisis, and I don’t think the NAACP should be siding with the big soda companies,” he told The Times. “They are attacking public health officials who are trying to respond to that crisis.” 

The organizations’ stance also put them somewhat at odds with First Lady Michelle Obama, who leads a national anti-obesity campaign. In a 2012 interview, she praised Bloomberg’s tackling of the issue, if not his plan specifically.

“We applaud anyone who’s stepping up to think about what changes work in their communities,” she told The Associated Press. “New York is one example.”

Some disparaged the civil rights groups for their move in a tone of scorn and near disbelief.

“Like any big, powerful institution, the NAACP has settled into a role as part of the establishment… All great social justice organizations run this risk, if they hang around long enough,” commentator Hamilton Nolan wrote on Gawker. “The Hispanic Federation’s annual gala is April 11, at the Waldorf-Astoria. There, they will present their ‘Corporate Leadership Award’ to The Coca-Cola Company, which is among their funders.”

He continued: “It’s quite easy for large nonprofits such as these to ensure a robust roster of future corporate funding: all they have to do is scratch these companies’ backs when called upon. This is what happens with civil rights organizations become co-opted by corporate interests.”

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