RICHMOND -- Much was made of divisions along class and racial lines over the failed ballot measure that would have imposed a penny-per-ounce tax on local businesses that sell sugar-sweetened beverages.
A report released last week by a Washington, D.C.-based health advocacy organization sought to explain why, concluding that multibillion-dollar beverage companies have ramped up spending on targeted philanthropy and paid strategic partnerships with ethnic groups and health organizations.
"In addition to partnerships with prominent health and anti-hunger groups, beverage companies have aggressively courted relationships with organizations that serve communities of color," according to the report, produced by the Center for Science in the Public Interest.
In Richmond, and on a smaller scale in El Monte in Southern California, the effort was on stark display last year as the American Beverage Association poured about $4 million combined into political campaigns aimed at crushing penny-per-ounce local ballot measures.
In both cities, the ballot measures were trounced by more than 2-to-1 margins in November. In Richmond, grass roots groups working for the tax -- which was touted as a funding source for youth recreation and health programs -- were swamped by the greatest infusion of political spending in the city's history. The industry eventually spent nearly $150 per vote in Richmond, nearly three times the statewide spending ratio by Meg Whitman in her failed bid to become California's governor in 2010.
"Although I've never seen anything quite like what I saw in terms of scale in Richmond, I have seen this playbook before," said Dr. Anthony Iton, California Endowment's senior vice president for Healthy Communities in Oakland, a sponsor of the report. "The tobacco industry developed this playbook of divide and conquer its opponents while building market share in minority communities. They use a civil rights argument to shield themselves against the health arguments."
Chuck Finnie, spokesman for the No on Measure N campaign in Richmond, disputed Iton's conclusion.
"We didn't divide anyone," he said. "We unified the city of Richmond against a misleading and misguided tax, and the proof is in the pudding."
Prominent local organizations quickly joined the beverage association-sponsored "Community Coalition Against Beverage Taxes," which the report called an "AstroTurf group."
"The ABA hired African-American and Latino community members as canvassers to oppose soda taxes," according to the report, which also noted that local branches of the NAACP and Black American Political Action Committee were part of the coalition.
But while officials with the political action committee did receive funds from the beverage industry, NAACP branch President Willie Robinson said his group did not receive any industry money and opposed the tax on economic grounds.
"There was no conversation and no money" between the beverage industry and the local NAACP, Robinson said. "Our executive board voted to oppose (Measure N) because we didn't want our communities and small business owners to bear the brunt of this tax."
In New York, the NAACP and the Hispanic Federation filed an amicus brief seeking to repeal New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's ban on sales of large sodas, which a judge recently overturned. The NAACP has received $2.1 million since 1986 from the beverage industry, according to the report.
At the same time, beverage companies give millions to promote healthy eating initiatives and medical science.
"As soda companies proudly publicize their philanthropy to obesity-prevention programs, they also have invested heavily in political campaigns to defeat public health measures to reduce soda consumption and obesity," according to the report.
Beverage industry spokespersons say that American Beverage Association companies spend millions on a range of philanthropic ventures, including improving community health. In Richmond, Finnie said the tax would have done nothing to curb consumption and instead would have siphoned money out of the poorest communities.
Iton said the big money campaigns were effective in the short term but, as in the case of tobacco's efforts to stave off taxes and regulations, were doomed in the long term.
"(The industry) is calculating and sophisticated in creating shields against attacks on the unhealthy effects of their products," Iton said. "But history is not on their side."