How Big Gulps Are Exactly Like Cigarettes

Two industries, the same tactic: money to minority groups and politicians. Local politics at its grimmest.

In 1986, when Mayor Ed Koch and the New York City Council proposed setting up non-smoking sections in restaurants, the tobacco industry ginned up protests from various recipients of its largesse.

Among them was the local NAACP, which drew a stinging rebuke in a New York Times editorial that May 22:

Philip Morris has another friend on the committee: the New York State Chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. Black smokers are a valuable, assiduously courted part of the cigarette market - and black men have the rising lung cancer rate to prove it. Nonetheless, Hazel Dukes, the chapter's president, joins the cigarette company in its claim that anti-smoking regulations are discriminatory — simply because blacks are more likely to smoke than whites. Philip Morris's call on racial fear and resentment is regrettable — but no more than the reluctance of Mrs. Dukes and other black leaders to reject it.

It is rather hard, these days, to find someone to tell you that the requirement of a non-smoking section in restaurants is a racial injustice. But Tuesday, the Times' Nick Confessore reported on a similar fight, on similar turf, as Mayor Michael Bloomberg attempts to impose restrictions on some fattening food over the objections of groups that claim to speak for black and Hispanic New Yorkers, and which also take vast sums from the beverage industry. And you don't have to see a parallel between smoking and Big Gulps, or even to suspend your loathing of the "nanny" mayor, to see the parallels between two rounds of local politics at its grimmest.

"Dozens of Hispanic and African-American civil rights groups, health advocacy organizations and business associations 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," Confessore writes. "Many of these groups have something else in common: They are among the recipients of tens of millions of dollars from the beverage industry."

There are politicians, and causes, who have no trouble raising money. The politicos who represent Manhattan, mostly; causes, like rolling back the unionization of education, popular with people who work in finance. Politicians who represent poor neighborhoods in Brooklyn and the Bronx, however, struggle to fundraise; and organizations aiming to speak for poor communities are often struggling to keep the lights on. And so it was, for instance, that Brooklyn Rep. Ed Towns used to be known on Capitol Hill as the "Marlboro Man" — the industry's staunchest ally in Congress.

This is a dynamic that many industries who prey on the urban poor capitalize on. The subprime mortgage industry, in particular, generously funded local advocates, who made the case for them (remember this argument?) that to bar what critics called "predatory" interest rates was to discriminate against people with bad credit. And it isn't just advocates for poor communities. Nonprofit work is, generally, a hand-to-mouth business, and a range of groups have shown themselves corruptible. Gay and lesbian organizations, for instance, embarrassed themselves with paid advocacy for everything from telecommunications to gambling.

But the parallels between the tobacco and soda industries are truly striking, as a recent Yale survey of the two detailed.

"For decades, the tobacco industry used perceptions of social responsibility to great effect. Contributions to minority and women's organizations offered implicit encouragement of leaders to target concerns other than smoking," the authors wrote. "Leaders of African American communities faced a very real conflict: either to help the community by accepting money or to speak out about the disproportionate toll of tobacco on the health of minority populations."

There must have been, some allowed back in the 1970s, some shred of logic or integrity to urban pols' and groups' advocacy for the tobacco industry. Actually, in the light even of recent history, it's a particularly embarrassing episode of a large industry's deep dive into ugly, transactional, and nickel-and-dime local politics.

Libertarians who oppose Bloomberg's soda ban on the merits probably shouldn't fool themselves into thinking that their allies' talk of racial justice is any more than that. Bloomberg, though, should probably have seen it coming: His political success has been premised, in no small part, on the thick coating of private money he's spread around to some of the same community groups, an investment repaid in political support, if not policy allegiance.