War Against Sugar Is Growing Among Blacks and Latinos

Local governments step in to stop the rampant consumption of soda and candy that leads to obesity and health disparities—but the powerful food lobby is pushing back with a heavy hand.

Sugar Tax on Sodas and MoreState and local governments are increasingly stepping in to stop the rampant consumption of soda and candy that is leading to obesity and health disparities. Evidence continues to point to sugar as the culprit, and government intervention may eventually help push soda the way of cigarettes. But the powerful food lobby—like the tobacco lobby—is pushing back with a heavy hand.

    • Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick last week proposed taxing soda and candy, the latest state leader to do so. About a third of Massachusetts children and 58 percent of residents are either overweight or obese. A similar proposal last year was unsuccessful.
    • South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley wants to seek a waiver from the federal government to prohibit food stamps from being used for unhealthy foods like soda, candy and chips. South Carolina has the eighth highest rate of obesity in the country and is one of only two states that does not categorize obesity as a disease under Medicaid.
    • Florida State Senator Ronda Storms introduced similar legislation last year and was met with a good deal of resistance; the effort ultimately failed. Storms told New York Times columnist Mark Bittman that soon after she proposed the bill, “Coca-Cola and Kraft were in my office” hating it.
    • The U.S. Department of Agriculture has reported that a tax-related 20 percent price increase on caloric sweetened beverages could cause an average reduction of 37 calories per day (3.8 pounds of body weight over a year) for adults and an average of 43 calories per day (4.5 pounds over a year) for children, resulting in a measurable decrease in obesity.
    • Last month, the Center for Science in the Public Interest petitioned the Food and Drug Administration to determine a safe level of added sugars for beverages as part of a comprehensive strategy to reduce Americans’ dangerously high sugar consumption. Ten health departments, 20 public-health organizations and 41 health professionals signed a letter in support of the petition.
    • While New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg has been successful in enacting a ban on jumbo-sized sugary drinks, set to go into effect this month, it was an extremely hard-fought battle. Even in New York City, where the rate of obesity among Blacks, Latinos and those in low-income communities is 70 percent, Bloomberg has gotten pushback on the soda restriction.

Although 39 states already tax sugary drinks, the huge processed-food lobby prevented a soda tax from being approved last November in two California locales, and even First Lady Michelle Obama, a staunch anti-obesity campaigner and healthy-eating advocate, refused to comment on the Florida food-stamp proposal while it was being debated. Further, existing state taxes are too small to significantly reduce consumption, and almost none of the revenues are earmarked for health promotion.

Efforts to get Americans to eat healthier are facing seemingly insurmountable pressure from groups like the American Beverage Association, which reportedly spent more than $3.5 million to help defeat the two recent California ballot measures, and the processed-food industry, which is harshly criticized in Michael Moss’ new book, Salt Sugar Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us (excerpted recently in The New York Times Magazine) for knowingly appealing to consumers’ addiction to salt and sugar.

Bloomberg’s plan has been criticized by the NAACP. The group recently filed suit against Bloomberg’s restrictions, citing the negative impact the big-drink ban would have on the largely minority-owned small businesses that sell the drinks. Another motive for the NAACP’s suit undoubtedly was its longstanding support from Coca-Cola, which funds the NAACP’s health-and-wellness initiative, Project HELP, among others.

With enough evidence and pressure, the tide may begin to turn: In Richmond, Calif., one of the two California cities that failed to approve a tax, the majority of citizens are Black, Latino and poor, and a new poll shows support for such an initiative is growing, particularly among these groups.

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  • To me, all of this government regulation over what we eat comes down to one simple fact: that the government feels that Americans are too ignorant to care for ourselves & don’t know how to eat healthy, so the government has to make healthy eating choices for us by heavily taxing the foods it feels we shouldn’t be eating. The fact that such regulations will admittedly impact Blacks & Latinos moreso than other groups should put them, as well as the organizers of this site, in an uproar, as the government continues to control more & more of those communities than others. Today, it’s soft drinks & candy. But where will it end? It’s quickly becoming a very slippery slope. I can understand the regulation of food stamps in this regard because if taxpayers are paying for those individuals’ food, then we’re most likely paying for their healthcare too – so we have a vested interest in them getting healthier, as it cuts down on these individuals’ long-term healthcare costs. But if I financially support myself & my family, let me do what I feel is best for us! I don’t need the government telling me how to eat – I’m intelligent enough to figure it out on my own, thank you very much.

    • Luke Visconti

      If only it worked that way—but it doesn’t. The fact is that everyone’s decisions end up impacting all of us—and there is no reason to allow a group of companies to pillage the marketplace and force all of us to pick up the pieces. The Wall Street banks did that to us in the subprime crisis, and some food companies are preying on the human tendency of stressed people to crave salt, sugar and fat.

      I’m so glad for you that you have the ability to support your family. But if you make some unfortunate health choices—or just get plain old unlucky and win the cancer contest or the Parkinson’s lottery—your end-of-life expenses won’t be paid by your family and they won’t be covered by a lifetime of insurance premiums; your end-of-day comfort and care will be provided by the group of people who constitute your particular insurance pool.

      Regarding your “slippery slope” of the danger in helping your neighbor, I’ve heard (but cannot source) a quote by Mark Twain: “Christianity is a great religion; someday, we should try it.” Luke Visconti, CEO, DiversityInc

      • It’s funny how you call upon religious principles to justify the actions of the government, when so many of our society’s faith-based values are under attack these days in the name of separation of church & state. I am a Christian, & I believe wholeheartedly that helping my fellow man in their time of need is the right thing to do. But doing so is a very personal choice that each individual should make for themselves, & should not be forced by the government. & I do not consider the government telling us how to live our lives to be “helping your neighbor,” & you’ll never convince me otherwise.

  • Renita Shadwick

    Has anyone considered the lunch programs at many public schools and the high amounts or sugar and salt, along with great amounts of processed foods that are given to children every day? There is no promotion of fresh foods in school lunch programs. It is all processed to a greater or lesser degree. Now there is conversation that milk manufacturers want to put a sweetener in the milk! For some families the school lunch represents the best meal their children consume – and it is full of what we don’t want them to have. If we want to go about making some changes in the health of Americans, do some things that change mindsets and habits. Do we really think a tax on candy and soda pop is gonna change a family’s eating habits and put them on the road to better health? Don’t help folks have better access to fresh fruits and vegetables and meats. Don’t do anything to lower or prevent neighborhood crime. Don’t improve transportation in areas of concentrated poverty which limits access to employment, healthcare professionals, quality childcare and education, and other necessary goods and services. Don’t put or bring people back to work. All of these issues together present significant challenges to health and the promotion of well being in all of our communities. I think we would do better to concentrate on a holistic approach to improving health by addressing (putting our money towards solving) some of the aforementioned issues and let a sugar…er..sleeping dog lay

    • I agree with you on the school lunches, Renita. Public schools are an arm of the government, so if the government wants to provide healthy lunches to schoolchildren, you’d be hard-pressed to find someone who’s against that – as long as it can be done in a cost-effective way. They’re just kids who have to eat whatever it is that the cafeteria is serving that day, whether it’s healthy or not – might as well make it healthy. This promotes eating right when children are still young & impressionable, & will hopefully instill good habits that will last a lifetime.

      Educating the public on how to live a healthy lifestyle, combined with mandating that food companies fully disclose the ingredients in their products so the public knows exactly what they’re putting into their bodies, & then stepping back & realizing that Americans are intelligent enough to take care of themselves – these are the solutions. NOT over-taxing the foods the government doesn’t think we should be eating.

  • Don’t you think that if given the choice between similarly priced sugary,low nutritional value foods and healthy food choices, people would choose the better quality foods?

    The issue is access to better food choices. I’ve seen kids munching on bags of barbeque-flavored chips for breakfast as they walk to school. If their parents had the money and time to give them whole wheat waffles with fruit instead of junk, they’d do it. Take a drive through a low-income neighborhood and you’ll see there are no/few grocery stores and if you find salmon, avocados, fresh seafood and veggies they’re out of the price range for most. That’s the issue. Taxing the food items that are readily available won’t help; you’ll only penalize people that already suffer from limited choices.

    Bring in fresh, healthy food choices that are as accessible as a bag of Doritos –then watch the buying habits change.

  • A poor person can get a 99c liter of soda, but not afford milk or juice. I have heard of poor kids using soda on cereal and I have seen them to be sent off to school with a bag of chips for breakfast as the food-banks many relay on do give lots of junk.
    Many people in poorer communities use small markets and liquor stores they can walk to that stock mostly junk.

    I wish people would donate and ask schools and foodbanks to give out more beans, hummus, brown rice, pasta, chili plain veggies, and fruits. give individual boxes of cereals rasin bran to schools , cherrios and other cereals can be eaten by hand for snacks. etc. Lots can be done better. Teach people to get used to what is better for them not cheap junk.

    encouraging those who can to bake and creating a tax for processed foods any whos fat sugar (or chemical substitutes) goes over the healthy amount per serving. BUT that tax should go directly to fund ONLY obesity, type 2 diabetes and high cholesterol and other directly realted health concerns.

  • Let’s not forget that “other culprit”–the HIGH FRUCTOSE CORN SYRUP that is the major “sweetener” in all these
    processed foods. Despite what the commercials babble,
    there DOES seem to be a high correlation of this particular sweetener vs. plain old brown sugar. As a kid growing up in the 1950’s–1960’s,I KNOW children and youth were NOT as obese at that time as they have become in the last twenty years or so…

    I believe Pepsi has experimented with re-introducing
    cane sugar back to its drink formula. Although we should probably avoid sugary soft drinks altogether, a more
    PRACTICAL solution would be to SUBSTANTIALLY REDUCE the
    HUGE AMOUNTS of sugars found in these products. The same
    regulations could go for manufactured/processed foods.
    Cutting the sugar content by at least one-third to one-half would make a HUGE difference in the total amount
    of sugars consumed per meal, per day.

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