Representatives of the city pushed back on this portrayal of the ban. Jean Weinberg, press secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, clarified in an email to theGrio that McDonald’s is an FSE, and that “This rule applies to all Food Service Establishments equally.”
While some food retailers are beyond its scope, she stressed that the ban is intended to improve the city’s health overall, not punish African-Americans.
“This rule is designed to benefit all New Yorkers,” Weinberg wrote. “A primary focus of the Health Department is to help the most vulnerable New Yorkers stay healthy. The city’s poor and minority residents are far more likely to be obese, have diabetes, and suffer from the many other health consequences of obesity. African-Americans, who suffer most, have a life expectancy at birth that is four years shorter than that of whites.”
In numerous studies, soda consumption has been linked to a host of health ills due to the resultant weight gain, leading many to wonder why the NAACP would fight an effort to curb access to it. The financial connections between the NAACP and the soda industry have been raised as an explanation.
PepsiCo gave the NAACP an unspecified amount between $10,001 and $50,000 in 2010, according to the company’s web site. The 2011 tax returns of the Coca-Cola Foundation show it donated $130,000 to the NAACP in support of two programs.
A 2010 press release recovered by theGrio shows the same foundation gave $100,000 to the NAACP’s Baltimore chapter and $35,000 to the New York group that year. These gifts suggest to some that the acquiescence of the NAACP may have been bought.
“Oh Please!” Dukes said of this allegation. “We have Wal-Mart, we have AT&T, we have Verizon,” she listed among other NAACP donors, suggesting that there is no connection between its soda sponsors and its opposition to the ban.
Dukes sees the real controversy as the city’s failure to invite the NAACP and elected officials into meetings when planning the proposal. “Did the City Council approve of this ban?” she asked, noting its passage by the all-Bloomberg-appointed Health Board. “There’s a whole process that was missing in here. There are some other things that could have been explored.”
Weinberg countered that, “This is an appropriate measure for the Board of Health, as its mission is to protect the health of all New York City residents and has a long history of passing regulations that do just that.”
“The portion cap rule is evidence-based,” Chanel Caraway, deputy press secretary of the Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, stated in a separate response. “This includes evidence supporting the following: sugary drinks are associated with obesity; sugary drinks are independently associated with chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease; increased portion size leads to increased consumption; and sugary drinks do not satiate like solid food.”
This evidence motivated city officials to move swiftly to target the link between obesity and soda consumption. Health statistics for New York City show that the area’s obesity rate has risen from 18.2 to 23.4 percent since 2002. Government programs pay for 60 percent of the $4.7 billion accrued annually due to obesity-related illnesses through increased Medicare and Medicaid costs. Numbers such as these spawned the need for immediate action.
“The obesity crisis impacting the nation, and disproportionately affecting minorities, calls for bold action,” Samantha Levine, deputy press secretary of the New York City Office of the Mayor, wrote in an email to theGrio. “[W]e are confident support will grow as more people learn about the unique impact sugary drinks have on this epidemic.”
But to Dukes, the policy is less of a precision instrument and more of a social bludgeon. She believes efforts that target various factors will have a deeper impact on what experts are calling an obesity epidemic. She hopes to lead the NAACP in a more concerted effort of corporations, communities, civil rights leaders and government to tackle obesity comprehensively. This will take a village, she believes, not a ban.
“There are many issues,” Dukes concluded. “We need to sit around a table and come to discuss how do we come to combat this dreadful disease.”
The national office of the NAACP declined to comment on the brief filed by the New York State NAACP.
Follow Alexis Garrett Stodghill on Twitter at @lexisb.