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How Soda Companies Target Latino Lawmakers

During the last election, members of the California Latino Legislative Caucus received nearly twice as much money in donations from soda companies as the average California Legislature member. Many of those top recipients abstained from a recent vote on a statewide sugary-drinks tax.

Soda companies and their trade associations donated more than twice as much, on average, to California lawmakers who voted "no" or abstained on a recent vote on a soda-tax bill, compared to their peers who voted "yes," according to a new analysis.

These numbers come from MapLight, a Berkeley-based, non-partisan group that tracks money in politics and supports placing limits on corporate campaign donations. (Pacific Standard received MapLight's data and spot-checked it with public databases.) The bill—which would have imposed a statewide tax of two cents per ounce on bottled, sweetened drinks—didn't pass.

Members of the Assembly Health Committee who voted "yes" on the bill received an average of about $2,700 in total donations from PepsiCo, the Coca-Cola Company, Dr Pepper Snapple Group, the California/Nevada Beverage Association Political Action Committee, and the American Beverage Association, according to California Secretary of State numbers provided by MapLight. Members who voted "no" received an average of about $3,300. And abstainers, all of them Latino Caucus members, got an average of nearly $16,000.

In addition, soda companies and their associations collectively donated almost twice as much, on average, to members of the California Latino Legislative Caucus than to general members of the California Legislature, during the last election: about $5,200 versus $2,800.

MapLight didn't examine why beverage companies donated more to Latino Caucus members, and multiple inquiries sent to the press offices of the Coca-Cola Company and the American Beverage Association received no response, while PepsiCo referred Pacific Standard to the American Beverage Association. However, the pattern of targeting Latino lawmakers fits in with emerging evidence that companies that make unhealthy drinks and snacks tailor their marketing to Latino and black Americans. "I think it's really all part of the same strategy, which is to try to increase the positive associations with these products in those communities," says Jennifer Harris, who leads research at the University of Connecticut's Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. Harris was not involved with the MapLight study.

Harris and her colleagues, as well as food-regulation advocates, think such marketing may be one reason why Latino and black Americans are more likely than whites to have diet-related health conditions, such as diabetes and heart disease.

Pacific Standard reached out to the members of the Latino Caucus who abstained from voting on the soda-tax bill. "I will tell you unequivocally, his decision was not related to any contributions," Sean Connelly, a spokesman for Assembly member Freddie Rodriguez, writes in an email. Assembly member Miguel Santiago declined to comment; Assembly member Jimmy Gomez didn't respond.

MapLight's discovery on the Latino Caucus was an accidental one: Company spokesman Alec Saslow says MapLight never set out with the intent of discovering whether Latino Caucus members received more soda money than their unaffiliated peers. That pattern emerged when the group analyzed soda-company donations to the California Legislature overall.

There were notable exceptions to the trends, including Assembly Speaker and Latino Caucus member Anthony Rendon, who received $15,800 from the groups MapLight studied and co-sponsored the failed sugary-drinks tax. Latino Caucus Vice Chair Lorena Gonzalez, who received no campaign donations from soda companies in the 2015 election cycle, voted against the bill because it would unfairly affect poor families, as she told the Sacramento Bee.

The evidence demonstrating unhealthy drink and food companies target black and Latino Americans isn't ironclad. There's some research that shows outdoor junk-food advertising is much more prominent in lower-income neighborhoods and black and Latino communities of all incomes. Harris' Rudd Center has published non-peer-reviewed research indicating that sugary-drink and junk-food companies advertise heavily on television networks with largely black audiences and on Spanish-language TV. For example, spots for 7Up and Fuze Iced Tea appeared on Spanish-language networks, but didn't appear on English-language TV.

Still, even Harris admits, "there really isn't a lot of research" on junk-food companies targeting minorities. That's in part because it's a difficult issue to study. "It's really hard to get a handle on this because [scientists want to] look at what's happening nationally, but a lot of what's going on happens at the local level, like sponsorship of playgrounds or community groups," Harris says.

The numbers on soda companies' donations to California lawmakers bolster the existing science on junk food-makers' targeted marketing, says Sonya Grier, a marketing professor at American University: "It definitely adds to the understanding."