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Pepperdine University School of Law

Thursday, November 16, 2017

NY Times: She Took On Colombia’s Soda Industry. Then She Was Silenced.

New York Times, She Took On Colombia’s Soda Industry. Then She Was Silenced.

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — It began with menacing phone calls, strange malfunctions of the office computers, and men in parked cars photographing the entrance to the small consumer advocacy group’s offices.

Then at dusk one day last December, Dr. Esperanza Cerón, the head of the organization, said she noticed two strange men on motorcycles trailing her Chevy sedan as she headed home from work. She tried to lose them in Bogotá’s rush-hour traffic, but they edged up to her car and pounded on the windows.

“If you don’t keep your mouth shut,” one man shouted, she recalled in a recent interview, “you know what the consequences will be.”

The episode, which Dr. Cerón reported to federal investigators, was reminiscent of the intimidation often used against those who challenged the drug cartels that once dominated Colombia. But the narcotics trade was not the target of Dr. Cerón and her colleagues. Their work had upset a different multibillion-dollar industry: the makers of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages.

Their organization, Educar Consumidores, was the most visible proponent of a proposed 20 percent tax on sugary drinks that was heading for a vote that month in Colombia’s Legislature. The group had raised money, rallied allies to the cause and produced a provocative television ad that warned consumers how sugar-laden beverages can lead to obesity and diet-related illnesses like diabetes.

The backlash was fierce. A Colombian government agency, responding to a complaint by the nation’s leading soda company that called the ad misleading, ordered it off the air. Then the agency went further: It prohibited Dr. Cerón and her colleagues from publicly discussing the health risks of sugar, under penalty of a $250,000 fine.

The battle over taxing sugar-sweetened beverages is becoming one of the world’s most ferocious policy brawls — a clash of science, politics and money in dozens of countries and cities.

“The industry sees sugary-drink taxes as an existential threat,” said Dr. James Krieger, executive director of Healthy Food America, which tracks beverage tax initiatives. In the United States, the industry has spent at least $107 million at the state and local levels since 2009 to beat back soda taxes and beverage warning labels, a new study found. Compared to the domestic tactics, Dr. Krieger said, overseas, “it’s much dirtier, much more bare-knuckled.”

The harassment of Dr. Cerón and her colleagues was never proven to be carried out by the industry, and federal prosecutors declined to investigate. In response to questions from The New York Times, Coke and Pepsi said they were not involved, and Postobón, the soda company that filed the complaint about the organization’s ad, deferred comment to The National Business Association of Colombia. The association, which represented national and international beverage makers on the soda tax issue, said it had nothing to do with the episodes....

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