Politics may make strange bedfellows, but money may make them stranger still.
While data show that African-Americans, especially black children, are disproportionately obese, the soda industry has found an ally in one of the community’s leading organizations – the NAACP, whose New York chapter has filed an amicus brief in support of a lawsuit that seeks to block Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s restrictions on sugared drinks.
The civil rights organization, like a number of other black organizations, has close ties to the beverage industry, especially Atlanta-based Coca-Cola, which has donated millions of dollars to various health and education programs over the years.
And while the soda industry has been very, very good to civil rights groups, obesity is a very, very real threat to African-Americans.
City health officials estimated that 70 percent of black New Yorkers and 66 percent of Latinos were obese or overweight.
According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, more than 29 percent of black adolescent girls were considered obese, compared to 14.5 percent of white adolescent girls – double the rate.
Studies have suggested that the current generation of young people may be the first to have a lower life expectancy than their parents because of the obesity epidemic in the U.S. and all the related diseases and health conditions that likely will develop or worsen, including asthma, hypertension and diabetes.
In New York City alone, the obesity rate for African-Americans is higher than the city average. The New York Times reported Thursday that city officials said people of color would be the largest beneficiaries of the regulations that limit the sale of super-sized beverages, which would put a 16-ounce limit on sodas sold in restaurants.
The New York regulations, which are scheduled to go into effect in March, affect restaurants and small neighborhood stores, but not big-chain grocers or convenience giants, including 7-Eleven.
Hazel Dukes, president of the New York state NAACP and a member of the national NAACP board of directors, told CBS News the issue is not about the money donated to their organizations by the beverage industry, but the city’s unwillingness to include the groups in discussions about how the rules would affect minority communities.
“People can say what they want to; we’re on the side of fairness,” said Dukes, who suggested the issue was as much lobbying-related as health-related. The big chains were left out, she added, “because they have political power.”
The brief was filed jointly with the Hispanic Federation, whose former president, Lillian Rodrigues Lopez, recently took a job at Coca-Cola, The Times reported.
The amicus brief acknowledged that obesity was a major issue in the black and Latino communities but that a more balanced approach to address the problem should be employed, including more funding for physical education programs in the city’s public schools.
In a joint statement issued by the America Beverage Association, the Hispanic Federation and the New York NAACP, Dukes said, “The decision by the board of health to restrict the sale of sugar-sweetened beverages in packages or cups larger than 16 oz. is neither prudent nor helpful in the overall fight against obesity. The ban will be ineffective in that it does not get to the root of the problem of obesity in New York or in the African-American community.”
Jackie Jones, a journalist and journalism educator, is director of the career transformation firm Jones Coaching LLC and author of “Taking Care of the Business of You: 7 Days to Getting Your Career on Track.”