What is PepsiCo buying with donations to communities of color?

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When I heard recently that the National Association of Hispanic Journalists had accepted $100,000 from PepsiCo, with half of the money going toward scholarships and internships for journalism students, I was taken back to 1988 to a smoke-filled hotel conference room in Washington D.C.

I had just been elected to NAHJ's board of directors, and we were debating whether or not to accept a sizeable contribution from tobacco giant Philip Morris.

"I don't have any problems with Philip Morris," I remember a fellow board member saying after she took a deep drag from her cigarette, clearly ignoring the irony.

I said something about it not being a good idea while puffing on a Benson & Hedges Deluxe Ultra Light Menthol 100. Several of us were smoking while we discussed the subject.

Like tobacco use, rising consumption of sugary drinks has become a major public health concern. Studies show that soda, sports drinks and other high-calorie beverages are major contributors to obesity and related illnesses including diabetes and heart disease (research shows diet drinks aren't all that good for you either).

And like the tobacco industry, soft drink companies target young people and communities of color -- groups that suffer the highest rates of obesity-related diseases.

I don't know whether anyone on the NAHJ board or staff pointed out the parallels between the generous Philip Morris and PepsiCo gifts. Or whether there was even any debate about accepting the money. These are tough times, especially for the journalism industry.

Yet, just like taking money from tobacco, accepting funding from the soda industry can put organizations like NAHJ on a slippery slope, with the potential to risk their values, integrity and public trust.

There are other parallels between tobacco and soda, as highlighted in a June 19 report by Berkeley Media Studies Group and the Public Health Advocacy Institute, "Soda and Tobacco Industry Corporate Social Responsibility Campaigns: How Do They Compare?"

"Because sugary beverages are implicated in the national as well as global obesity crisis, soda manufacturers have recently employed elaborate, expensive, multinational corporate social responsibility campaigns [that] echo the tobacco industry's use of such campaigns as way to focus responsibility on consumers rather than on the corporations," the study noted.

These campaigns also seek to bolster the popularity of soda companies and their products and prevent regulation (meanwhile employing tobacco industry tactics in aggressively fighting policy proposals such as soda taxes and New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's controversial measure to limit sugary drink portion sizes).

In a press release, PepsiCo announced that the NAHJ contribution was part of La Promesa [The Promise] of PepsiCo, a corporate social responsibility campaign "that focuses specifically on Latino empowerment and the issues that matter most to Hispanics including Latino education, employment opportunities, promoting active lifestyles, and investing in science to develop healthier products."

As part of its "Promesa," PepsiCo also made significant contributions to other national Latino organizations including the Congressional Hispanic Caucus Institute and historic civil rights groups League of United Latin American Citizens and National Council of La Raza.

One only has to watch the latest TV commercial by the American Beverage Association, which represents PepsiCo and Coca-Cola, to see that they are doing everything they can to convince the public -- and their shareholders -- of their corporate social responsibility.

Titled "We're Delivering," the ad touts the beverage industry's role in addressing the nation's obesity crisis (without really saying so): "For our families, our neighbors and our communities, America's beverage companies have created a wide range of new choices, developing smaller portion sizes, and more low and no-calorie beverages. Adding clearer calorie labels so you know exactly what you're choosing. And in schools, replacing full-calorie soft drinks with lower calorie options."

The problem is that despite the fact that beverage companies in the U.S. spent nearly a half billion dollars in 2006 to market directly to children ages 2-17, and each year, youth are exposed to hundreds of TV and digital ads, the beverage industry aggressively rejects claims that its products and marketing practices play any role in the obesity epidemic.

The beverage industry says it's about consumers making poor choices and not increasing their level of physical activity yet ignores the context in which those decisions are made. It is disingenuous and deceptive to deny the contribution sugary drinks make to the obesity epidemic. It fails to recognize the collaboration it will take between industry, government and consumers to solve the obesity crisis.

Meanwhile, the question remains: Should influential organizations representing the media, elected officials and civil rights advocates receive financial support from soda if it means not holding the industry accountable for its part in the obesity problem as well as the solution?

I know that if I were back on the board of NAHJ, an organization I am proudly a lifetime member of, I would at least put it up for discussion -- admittedly between sips of Diet Coke.

This blog has also appeared in Richmond Pulse, AlterNet, New America Media, Reporting on Health, People of Color Organize, and Highbrow Magazine.

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