You can mess with Big Tobacco, Big Pharma and Big Oil. But don’t dare mess with Big Sugar. Those guys play hardball.
Around the globe, nothing sells like soft drinks, which are loaded with sugar and have been linked to rising obesity and diabetes rates. One of the first things doctors order parents to do when their children are diagnosed with hyperactivity disorder is to get them off soft drinks. Don’t even get dentists started on what soda can do to teeth.
The political battlefield is littered with the casualties of activist campaigns that dared to take on Big Sugar in the name of health and good education. That’s a sad, though hardly surprising, statement on the industry’s priorities.
This year in Santa Fe, N.M., a local proposition asked voters to accept a 2 cents-per-ounce tax on soft drinks to fund early-childhood education. Santa Fe, population 84,000, seemed hardly worth the time and effort, but the industry came in with guns blazing.
Pro- and anti-tax groups spent a record $163 per vote to influence the decision, including a $1.1 million pro-tax donation from former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and $1.3 million from Big Sugar.
Proponents tried to make the election about pre-K education — an effort badly needed because of New Mexico’s notoriously low national ranking for academic performance — but beverage companies campaigned hard in low-income neighborhoods to make the vote about cheap access to soda. They won handily. A similar effort went down to defeat in Chicago last month.
In Latin America, talk of restricting people’s access to sugary drinks can lead to deadly violence. Indian tribes in southern Mexico have clashed over whether to drink Coke or Pepsi.
In Colombia last year, consumer-advocacy activists received death threats after they campaigned for a 20 percent tax on sugary drinks, the New York Times reported. Activists were terrorized in ways reminiscent of Colombia’s civil war: menacing phone calls, computer sabotage, overt surveillance.
One advocate, Dr. Esperanza Cerón, was hounded by men on motorcycles one day as she drove down a street. They shouted: “If you don’t keep your mouth shut, you know what the consequences will be.” When her group launched an ad campaign warning of the health effects of sugary soft drinks, a leading soda company complained to the government. Cerón and her colleagues were banned from posting future ads and faced a $250,000 fine.
Sounds awfully reminiscent of the deny-at-all-costs strategy employed by Big Tobacco before the cigarette companies ultimately caved. Big Sugar knows that billions more people, and billions more dollars, are at stake in the soft-drink fight. And we all know that when corporate profits are at stake, human health priorities come in a distant second.
FROM AN EDITORIAL IN THE ST. LOUIS POST-DISPATCH