NEW YORK — 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 last month when the New York chapter of the NAACP, 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 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 levels, 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 Calderon, the president of the Hispanic Federation, said he shared 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," Calderon said. “Our experience has been that you educate folks, empower folks — meet them where they are, basically."
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 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.
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 Martinez, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Hispanic Leadership Institute. Martinez said the institute, which counts PepsiCo and Coca-Cola among its sponsors, had advised local officials, including Mayor Julian Castro of San Antonio, on obesity and nutrition initiatives.
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 Jacobson, executive director of the Center for Science in the Public Interest, which is leading the FDA petition effort. “It gives credibility to the industry’s arguments, which are typically self-serving."
While some local NAACP chapters have been members of Americans Against Food Taxes, the national NAACP, whose anti-obesity advocacy is funded chiefly by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, does not oppose soda taxes.
In a resolution adopted at the group’s 2010 annual convention, the NAACP 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.
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 makers and other food companies. Their preferred solutions often reflect those favored by the beverage industry: calorie labeling, nutritional education and expanded exercise programs.