Life, liberty and 20oz servings of Coca-Cola


WORLD VIEW:Most of us find little problem enumerating basic democratic rights: the rights to vote, to organise, to free speech, to freedom from persecution, to life . . . And then, it appears, there is that fundamental right perhaps not so well known, the democratic right “to drink Coke from an ultra-large, 20oz cup”.

Presumably it’s one of the subclass of “personal autonomy” rights, like that to own an automatic rifle or not to wear a seat belt. One definitely worth going to the barricades for!

Or so that most venerable of civil rights organisations, the National Association for the Advancement of Coloured People (NAACP) insists. Such is America’s often zany minority politics. This week it joined Hispanic organisations in lodging an amicus brief on the side of the beverage industry in a case against city mayor Michael Bloomberg for “stripping New Yorkers of their democratic rights”.

His offence? To insist, in the name of the struggle against endemic obesity – 6,000 New Yorkers die every year from obesity-related illness – on an ordnance limiting to 16oz the size of some sugary drinks sold in restaurants, delis, cinemas and sports stadiums.

The NAACP says the measure interferes in customer choice and discriminates against minority small business owners and the black community, which consumes such beverages more than whites. To a bewildered Bloomberg that’s precisely the point: the city health department says “black New Yorkers are three times more likely, and Hispanics twice as likely, as whites to die from diabetes”. Their organisations should surely be championing such measures, however limited?

As for the minority businesses – they have a point. Supermarkets and petrol stations will be free to sell the larger cups, and as Katherine Connell pointed out in the National Review “not all types of sugary drinks are equal in Bloomberg’s eyes, either. Alcoholic beverages, fruit juice, and dairy-based products are exempt. So Starbucks can go on serving 610-calorie venti iced white chocolate mochas with whip cream on top, but a Coke with fewer than half the calories is verboten”.

So, I hear you say, extend the ban far more widely? Not on your life, says Coca-Cola, new champion of healthy living and now running campaigns akin to the National Rifle Association’s “guns don’t kill, people do”. In a new ad addressing obesity, Coca-Cola proclaims with flawless logic “a calorie is a calorie”. The logic: why discriminate against “our” calories?

And while it calls on people to “come together” to fight obesity, it slips not-inconsiderable amounts of dollars to groups and individuals willing to fight not obesity but Bloomberg. The “real thing”!

That one of those groups is the NAACP might have something to do with the latter’s bizarre stance. Coca-Cola’s philanthropic arm awarded the NAACP $100,000 last December to support “a programme promoting healthy eating, physical activity and healthy lifestyles in African-American communities”. The New York NAACP received $35,000 in “education” grants.

The relationship has been cultivated by the drinks giant for a number of years, part of its efforts to rebrand Coke in the black community. In its early years at the end of the 19th century, middle-class whites worried it was contributing to what they saw as exploding cocaine use among blacks.

Southern newspapers reported that “Negro cocaine fiends” were raping white women, the police unable to stop them. By 1903, the company bowed to white fears removing the cocaine that was part of the secret recipe, adding more sugar and caffeine. And for decades its marketing would be directed overwhelmingly at whites. Pepsi became the black community’s cola of choice.

Coca-Cola saw the lost opportunity in the 1950s and has since assiduously courted the community, strongly endorsing and supporting the work of the NAACP. The favours have been returned, but surely at a price to the organisation’s credibility?

Bloomberg has been here before. The billionaire has run controversial health campaigns, personal as much as city crusades, investing much of his own money in them, against tobacco in public places and forcing restaurants such as McDonald’s to display calorie counts on their menus.

None is about striking decisive blows against obesity or cancer; but the campaigns are nevertheless useful, pretty harmless consciousnessraising exercises. But each has prompted powerful moneyed lobbies – often alliances of the most peculiar bedfellows – into fierce resistance campaigns. Americans take their “rights” most seriously.

A few cities are contemplating following Bloomberg’s lead on portion controls while states including Nebraska, Hawaii and Massachusetts are considering higher taxes on soft drinks. France taxes sugar-sweetened beverages, Denmark taxes saturated fats and Hungary taxes hamburgers. Over to you, Dr Reilly?

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