You know the beverage industry is running scared when it feels driven to mount an all-out campaign against a New York City law passed last year banning the sale of super-size sodas and sugary drinks. But it's beyond shameless when that effort includes arm-twisting support for its cause from a group representing the very people who would benefit most from the law.
Yet that's what played out in a New York courtroom last week, when the city's NAACP branch took the industry's side by arguing that the ban on sugary drinks in containers larger than 16 ounces, which was strongly endorsed by Mayor Michael Bloomberg, would unfairly hurt residents in African-American communities. That's in a city where 70 percent of black New Yorkers — and 66 percent of Hispanic residents — are obese or overweight and where health officials point to sodas and sweetened juices as a main cause.
Why would the nation's oldest civil rights organization take a stand so at odds with its historic mission of advocating on behalf of issues important to African-Americans? The simple answer is: Follow the money. The New York City branch of the NAACP has received tens of thousands of dollars from the Coca-Cola Co. and other beverage companies over the years, and now the industry is demanding payback. Through its longtime Atlanta law firm, Coke literally wrote and paid for the friend of the court brief that the New York NAACP filed in opposition to the ban.
It's hardly surprising that Coke and other beverage manufacturers would pull out all the stops to derail New York's attempt to rein in sales of sodas and sugary drinks. The companies have come under increasing pressure from public health officials around the country who are concerned about the adverse effects of sweetened beverages, and a number of states, including Massachusetts, Hawaii and Nebraska, already have moved to impose higher taxes or other deterrents on the consumption of sugary drinks.
But New York City is ground zero in that fight, both because of its enormous population and because what happens there often has a huge influence on attitudes in other parts of the country. That's why the beverage industry has drawn a symbolic line in the sand against Mayor Bloomberg's ban: To paraphrase the old Frank Sinatra song, if it can make it in New York, it can make it anywhere.
The desperation of the beverage industry over preventing that from happening is understandable, even if it is misguided. But the New York NAACP's collusion in that effort is an extraordinarily cynical and destructive betrayal of its mandate that will sully the organization's reputation for integrity for years to come.
The New York group, which operates independently of the national headquarters here in Baltimore, has tried to explain away the conflict by claiming that a ban would put small business owners in minority communities at a competitive disadvantage to certain large retailers who are exempt from the law. It's also said its decision to support the beverage industry against the ban had nothing to do with the industry's past financial contributions to the group. But if its concern was really about unfair competition, why isn't it advocating to end the exemptions?
The NAACP's explanations aren't the least bit persuasive given the documented relationship between sugary drinks and the obesity epidemic that disproportionately affects African-Americans and other minorities, especially in poor communities. There is absolutely no excuse for advocating against the interests of those who most depend on the NAACP to get a fair hearing when public policy is made, and the damage is made worse when it tarnishes the credibility of the larger civil rights movement. That's something the national NAACP should make clear to all its local chapters when such situations arise, and the sooner it does so the better.