New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced last week that he wanted to ban the display of cigarettes in stores in an effort to reduce youth smoking.
His announcement came after a judge ruled against his plan to ban super-sized sugary drinks, a ruling that Bloomberg is appealing.
Super-sized, sugary drinks and cigarettes are harmful to one’s health. The latter causes cancer; the former contributes to obesity.
Diseases caused by obesity account for more than 400,000 deaths annually; tobacco-related deaths are even higher. Obesity and tobacco-use cost the United States as much as $286 billion annually in health care related expenses.
Rightly so, pro-health advocates have called for a health campaign against obesity akin to the one waged against tobacco.
Expectedly so, those who profit from sugary drinks and smoking oppose government efforts to curb the unhealthy behaviors of individuals whose health problems cost society a fortune in medical treatment.
What was unexpected was a New York Times article that said the profiteers from sugary drinks had been joined by organizations whose core constituency suffers most from obesity.
“Dozens of Hispanic and African-American civil rights groups … have joined the beverage industry in opposing soda regulation around the country in recent years, arguing that such measures – perhaps the greatest regulatory threat the soft-drink industry has ever faced – are discriminatory, paternalistic or ineffective,” read the article.
These organizations have received “tens of millions of dollars from the beverage industry … over the last decade,” said the Times.
The newspaper identified the National Hispana Leadership Institute and National Association for the Advancement of Colored People chapters – among others.
Such organizations filed a friend of the court brief in favor of the sugary-drink industry’s lawsuit against Bloomberg’s ban.
The article said that some civil rights groups across the country have charged that efforts to curb sugary drinks or to have a soda tax were paternalistic – even racist.
One is hard pressed to see how government efforts to curb harmful health practices and to advance good health are racist.
Not all minority leaders make such linkages, however. Some fault civil rights groups.
The president of the Hispanic Institute, which supports regulations on sugary drinks, said that some civil rights groups are “getting funded by the soda industry. They’re taking the money and looking the other way on obesity, diabetes, heart disease. They look the other way or issue statements that have no teeth or don’t go after the industry.”
When civil rights groups take money from disease-causing industries and oppose initiatives that would improve the health of members of their own communities, then they are working against their own community’s common good – good health. They are really working against the self-interests of their core constituency.
A similar dynamic has been at play with tobacco companies and minority groups.
As far back as 1998, a report from the Surgeon General warned that “some close, long-term relationships between tobacco companies and various racial/ethnic communities could hamper U.S. efforts to lower rates of tobacco use by the year 2000.”
The report added, “Contributions from tobacco companies and tobacco-related political action committees have underwritten the growth of racial/ethnic political power at the local, state, and national levels.”
The current Centers for Disease Control website notes that the tobacco industry continues to sponsor minority groups as a way to promote their products.
Will the history of such sponsorship encourage civil rights or minority groups to oppose the ban on displaying cigarettes in stores? Or will there be another news story about minority groups teaming up with the tobacco industry?
A larger question here is why organizations work against the self-interests of their constituency.
With substance abuse – alcohol – so widespread on college campuses with such destructive consequences, why are college presidents so permissive about alcohol advertisements during tournament events, at tailgate parties on campus and during university-sponsored gatherings? Are these leaders not working against the self-interests of their own communities?
One understands readily the drive to pursue self-interest. Sugary-drink and tobacco companies want private gain.
On the other hand, why do organizations work against the self-interests of their own? Does money alone explain such actions? Maybe it does in some circumstances.
Greed – or even financial self-interest – explains much, but not all, human behavior.
Ideology, political power, organizational survival and cultural accommodation are other factors that might explain why leaders of entities act against the self-interest of their constituency.
Perhaps a simple explanation – from a Christian vantage point – is human sinfulness.
“Who can understand” the human heart, asked the prophet Jeremiah (17:9). “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt.”
Robert Parham is executive editor of EthicsDaily.com and executive director of its parent organization, the Baptist Center for Ethics. Follow him on Twitter at RobertParham1 and friend him on Facebook.