The NAACP's New York State chapter surprised some in the health community last week when the group filed a joint petition to block New York City's upcoming soda ban.
In partnership with the Latino Federation, American Beverage Association, New York Korean-American Grocers Association and the Association of Theater Owners of New York State, the civil rights organization filed a petition arguing that banning sugary drinks in New York City will negatively affect minority small-business owners.
The law prohibits sugary drinks – including soda and fruit drinks that contain less than 70 percent fruit juice – sold in containers larger than 16 ounces (supermarkets and convenience stores are exempt), and if businesses run afoul, they risk a $200 fine. The document also claims that the ban won't stop the spread of obesity, which plagues 66 percent of black New Yorkers, according to a city report, because consumers can still purchase sugar-filled beverages elsewhere.
"(Some) national chains like 7-Eleven, which can handle the financial loss, are exempt (from the ban)," NAACP New York Conference President Hazel N. Dukes stated in a press release. "You can't be serious about banning big sodas when you have a loophole for Big Gulps."
Financial considerations aside, a black organization rallying against a law that might stave off an African-American obesity epidemic seems odd, but Dukes says that her group is in the right.
"Our position is fairness; we're not encouraging anyone (toward) sugary drinks," Dukes told The Root. "For the last five years, the NAACP has been addressing obesity as an epidemic, but in this state, Mayor Bloomberg and the commissioner of health did not take into consideration economic fairness regarding the mom-and-pop bodegas. They are not touching the grocery stores or national chains like McDonald's."
Elsewhere, health professionals such as Lisa Powell at the University of Illinois and Health Policy Center applaud New York's looming sugar ban, which may go into effect in June.
"The New York limit on cup sizes of sugar-sweetened beverages is definitely the way to go," says Powell. "It's important for the policy to cover all sugar-sweetened beverages, not just some, like soda."
According to a national study that Powell and Euna Han published in the Journal of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in 2012, young children overall were more likely to be heavy sugar consumers, meaning that they consume 500 calories of sugary drinks each day. African-American children are almost twice as likely as white children to be heavy fruit-drink consumers, but African Americans are half as likely to be heavy soda consumers. It seems the cultural jokes about African-americans favoring "grape drink" are somewhat based in truth.
"There are different patterns in sugar-sweetened beverage [consumption] across race, especially when you're looking at heavy consumption," Powell says. "For example, sports- and energy-drink consumption has increased across all ages and tripled among teens."
But it's soda that seems to be the controversial chink in the NAACP's armor. The New York Times reports that the Coca-Cola beverage company has made significant financial contributions to both the Latino Federation and the NAACP, specifically the latter's health organization, Project HELP. But Dukes says that this petition is unrelated.
"We don't take any money from federal or state governments, so foundations absolutely have an obligation to fund nonprofit groups that speak to issues that affect them," Dukes says.
"We get funding from Nielsen, Wal-Mart, Chase, Bank of America, you name it. That has nothing to do with the issue, which is fairness. You can't go into somebody's home and say they can't have sodas in their house. You have to educate people about healthy food and bring them out of a culture."
(Hillary Crosley is the New York bureau chief at The Root. Follow her on Twitter)