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Minority Groups and Bottlers Team Up in Battles Over Soda

The decision by a New York State judge striking down the Bloomberg administration’s ban on large, sugary drinks this week was not just a high-profile victory for the soda companies in their pitched battle against anti-obesity policies that are aimed at their products. It was also a victory for the industry’s steadfast, if surprising, allies: advocacy groups representing the very communities hit hardest by the obesity epidemic.
Dozens of Hispanic and African-American civil rights groups, health advocacy organizations and business associations have joined the beverage industry in opposing soda regulation around the country in recent years, arguing that such measures — perhaps the greatest regulatory threat the soft-drink industry has ever faced — are discriminatory, paternalistic or ineffective.
Many of these groups have something else in common: They are among the recipients of tens of millions of dollars from the beverage industry that has flowed to nonprofit and educational organizations serving blacks and Hispanics over the last decade, according to a review by The New York Times of charity records and other documents.
Soda companies have sponsored conferences for the National Hispana Leadership Institute, scholarships for local chapters of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, financial literacy classes offered by the National Puerto Rican Coalition and programs from the National Hispanic Medical Association.
These connections came to the fore recently when the New York chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., along with the Hispanic Federation, a coalition of Hispanic community service agencies in the New York area, filed an amicus brief in support of the beverage industry’s effort to block Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s proposal for a citywide ban on large, sugary beverages. The judge ruled on Monday that the limits would be “arbitrary and capricious” because they would apply unequally to some establishments and to different kinds of sugary beverages.
The Bloomberg administration said it would appeal the decision. And the fight over soda regulation is likely to intensify beyond New York in the coming months.
In February, after a string of defeats at the state and local level, a coalition of health advocates and public officials petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to regulate the amount of caloric sweeteners in sodas and other beverages, asserting that the scientific consensus was clear that added sugars had made such products unsafe.
The two groups that opposed the New York ban — both of which have received grants or sponsorship dollars from Coca-Cola or PepsiCo — argued that the regulations unfairly discriminated against bodegas and other small neighborhood stores while leaving supermarkets and other retailers exempt.
In an interview, Jose Calderón, the president of the Hispanic Federation, said he shared Mr. Bloomberg’s concern with obesity among Latinos but disagreed with his strategy. He also said the federation would have probably opposed a ban even if it had covered all businesses.
“I don’t think we move the needle by legislating what people ultimately eat or drink,” Mr. Calderón said. “Our experience has been that you educate folks, empower folks — meet them where they are, basically.”
Longtime Relationships
In many cases, the financial relationships between soda companies and nonprofit groups go back decades, stemming from the industry’s early embrace of the civil rights movement. But as battles over soda taxes have broken out around the country in recent years, advocates for tighter regulation argue, the money has effectively muzzled organizations that might otherwise be on the side of regulation.
“A lot of these organizations have particular niches that they use to service the communities,” said Gus K. West, president of the Hispanic Institute, a policy advocacy organization based in Washington that supports tighter regulation of sugary drinks. “And they’re getting funded by the soda industry. They’re taking the money and looking the other way on obesity, diabetes, heart disease. They look the other way or issue statements that have no teeth or don’t go after the industry.”
Officials at PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, whose products dominate the beverage market, said there was no connection between the grants to community groups and their positions on soda regulation.
“We never ask our foundation or community relations partners to engage in public policy issues on our behalf,” said Jeff Dahncke, a spokesman for PepsiCo. “The nature of these relationships is focused on diversity and inclusion.”
Katelyn Jackson, a spokeswoman for Coca-Cola, said in an e-mail, “The suggestion that our community philanthropic efforts are motivated by something other than good will is grossly inaccurate and ignores our history of true partnership for well over a century.”
In interviews, officials at some groups receiving industry money said they opposed a soda tax because it was bad policy, too narrowly focused on a single factor in rising obesity rates. They also said the tax fell disproportionately on the poor.
“We don’t support soda taxes and things like that, any kind of grocery taxes, because we think they hurt our community more than helping,” said Christina M. Martínez, a spokeswoman for the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute. Ms. Martínez said the institute, which counts PepsiCo and Coca-Cola among its sponsors, had advised local officials, including Mayor Julián Castro of San Antonio, on obesity and nutrition initiatives.
Invaluable Backing
In interviews, soda industry executives said that nonprofit groups in the black and Hispanic communities were important partners in beating back what they viewed as misguided tax proposals.
“It’s important to have all impacted parties out there so we can educate lawmakers and the media about the impact bans would have on our business,” said Christopher Gindlesperger, a spokesman for the American Beverage Association, which has led the battle against bans and taxes.
The association formed Americans Against Food Taxes in 2009, when the Obama administration considered a soda tax to help pay for its signature health care legislation. The industry began a withering counterattack, recruiting a wide variety of businesses and nonprofit agencies, including many serving black and Latino communities, to join its coalition and help throttle the proposal.
“Their opposition makes the battles harder,” said Michael F. Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is leading the F.D.A. petition effort. “It gives credibility to the industry’s arguments, which are typically self-serving.”
The industry has formed local coalitions around the country, with the beverage association putting up millions of dollars in advertising and recruiting small businesses to provide lobbying and grass-roots volunteers. A spinoff group in New York, called New Yorkers Against Unfair Taxes, beat back a proposal in 2010 by David A. Paterson, then the governor, to impose a soda tax at the state level. More recent efforts to regulate soda locally have also foundered, as they did in Philadelphia, where small businesses and the beverage industry twice defeated soda tax proposals from Mayor Michael A. Nutter.
The industry has also enlisted allies among black and Latino leaders to block local soda tax efforts, most prominently last fall, in the Bay Area city of Richmond, Calif.
When the City Council put a referendum on the November ballot to impose a 1-cent-per-ounce tax on sugar-sweetened beverages, soda companies poured at least $2.5 million into efforts to defeat it.
African-American organizations in the city, like the Black American Political Action Committee and the Richmond chapter of the N.A.A.C.P., joined the industry, arguing that the proposal was paternalistic and that lawmakers had failed to consult with their community before putting it to voters. Some used even stronger language, stoking divisions in a city that had long faced tension between its black establishment and more liberal whites.
“They claimed it was racist — that here I was, a white doctor, trying to impose a regressive tax on black people,” said Jeff Ritterman, a former Richmond councilman and retired cardiologist who led the effort. “Even though we had data showing it would improve the health of African-American children, it was hard to get that message out.”
While some local N.A.A.C.P. chapters have been members of Americans Against Food Taxes, the national N.A.A.C.P., whose anti-obesity advocacy is financed chiefly by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, does not oppose soda taxes. In a resolution adopted at the group’s 2010 annual convention, the N.A.A.C.P. hailed its partnerships with beverage companies but also cited the foundation’s research showing that higher prices can drive people to eat fewer unhealthy foods. The resolution called for local chapters to pursue a range of strategies to reduce African-Americans’ consumption of products containing added sugars.
A Mutual Benefit
For nonprofit groups, especially those serving low-income communities, corporate grants and sponsorships can be a financial lifeline, underwriting programs, conferences and research. And as community groups serving blacks and Latinos try to tackle rising rates of obesity, many of them have chosen to team up with soda manufacturers and other food companies. Their preferred solutions often reflect those favored by the beverage industry: calorie labeling, nutritional education and expanded exercise programs.
“We have not been able to bring some of the older-line civil rights leaders along in our discussion of public health,” said LaDonna Redmond, a health activist and senior program associate at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, based in Minneapolis.
“They may understand the ties to food consumption and health,” Ms. Redmond added. “But they’re like so many Americans — they understand the problem but they don’t want to get involved to do something about it. They’re going to take the money and they say, ‘What’s wrong with helping our friends?’ ”
When the United States Hispanic Leadership Institute created a proposal for a Latino health policy agenda several years ago, five of the eight members of the committee preparing health recommendations represented nonprofit groups that were active in the battle against soda taxes. This year, the institute’s annual conference was sponsored by PepsiCo; the keynote speaker was Richard P. Montañez, a senior executive at the company.
“We have a great partnership with PepsiCo,” said Ms. Martínez, the institute’s spokeswoman. The group had pushed PepsiCo to market healthier food to Latino consumers, she said, because “we as a community need to do a better job of making our own decisions at the grocery store.”
Ms. Martínez said the group had not extensively studied soda taxes before taking a position against them.
“We’re a shoestring organization, as you can imagine,” she said. “But we have access to the research through our partnerships with PepsiCo, and as far as we know, there’s no benefit to the community.”
Maintaining a Presence
In addition to supporting organizations that have taken stands against soda regulation, soda companies have also supported groups like the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation and the National Hispanic Caucus of State Legislators, which formulate model legislation and propose health policy for lawmakers but have stayed neutral on the soda tax debate.
Other groups that have not taken a position on the issue have relied directly on soda companies to finance their research and programming on obesity. Philanthropic foundations set up by Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have given more than $10 million over the last decade to the National Council of La Raza, the country’s biggest Latino civil rights organization, and the group has received other soda company sponsorships and grants.
Executives from the two companies sit on La Raza’s corporate board of advisers, as well as the boards of many other black and Latino community groups. According to Coca-Cola’s 2010 “diversity stewardship report,” almost a third of the company’s senior executives based in the United States sit on the boards of what it categorized as “multicultural organizations.”
When La Raza began preparing an ambitious, national anti-obesity program several years ago, officials there developed it with a sponsor in mind: PepsiCo. The program, which sends local health educators to teach healthier eating and food-shopping habits, emphasizes balanced diets and reduced consumption of carbohydrates, fats and other high-calorie foods, including sugary snacks and beverages.
“This is a need we had, and they are a company that produces some very healthy products,” said Delia Pompa, La Raza’s senior vice president for programs. “We went to them and said, ‘Will you fund this?’ ”
Ms. Pompa said she did not believe the financing affected La Raza’s policy priorities. The group has not had any internal discussions about soda taxes, she said, nor had she or La Raza taken any position on the issue.
“I don’t think I’ve studied it enough to give it an answer,” she said. “And certainly since it is not a policy we’ve discussed internally, we don’t have a professional opinion.”
Kitty Bennett contributed reporting.Kitty Bennett contributed reporting.