Building Community Power to Limit Marketing of Sugary Drinks

Xavier Morales, Ph.D., MRP, executive director of the Praxis Project, is a longtime advocate for community-driven initiatives to improve health, justice, and racial equity. He and his team work to counter the beverage industry’s marketing of sugary drinks to kids. In 2018 alone, companies spent more than $1 billion on advertising sugary drinks. 

“Childhood obesity is a symptom of our policy decisions and disinvestments. We need to address the root causes of children with obesity. That means making sure we have environments that are fully thriving where children have all the necessary nutrition.”

— Xavier Morales, Ph.D., MRP, Executive Director of the Praxis Project

Xavier and his team focus on educating communities of color, immigrant communities and families with low income about the health benefits of drinking water and the dangers of sugary drinks; and then supporting these same communities to lead culturally relevant solutions and policy change to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks. 

In this perspective, Xavier shares his insights on the beverage industry’s practices, and most importantly, how we can proactively address these practices in ways that help communities and their residents thrive. 

On How We Got Here

COVID-19 has highlighted deep structural problems in our country, which Xavier and his team already knew existed and persisted for decades. He urges that now is the time to reprioritize our budgets and resources to tackle the structures and systems that drive health inequity.

“Right now, we are starving our communities of the resources they need to live healthy.”

Xavier believes that the intentional and unintentional disinvestment in neighborhoods over time has been so great that some communities simply don’t have conditions and environments that provide equitable opportunities for all residents to thrive. Take, for example, Flint, Michigan, where years after the clean water crisis, parts of the city still do not have clean tap water. And in areas where the water may be clean, because of the city’s history, people do not trust that it is. This is just one example of many where lack of investment and unjust policies have created huge disparities and put entire populations at risk for poor health. 

As a result, many communities have contaminated water and no safe places for children to play. And for many families, fresh fruits and vegetables are too expensive or not available, while corner stores and fast food restaurants are the only convenient places to buy foods and drinks. This is why chronic health conditions, including obesity, are more prevalent in communities where we have disinvested in healthy policies, practices, and basic resources. 

Childhood obesity is a symptom of our policy decisions and disinvestments. We need to address the root causes of children with obesity. That means making sure we have environments that are fully thriving where children have all the necessary nutrition.

On Who Is Impacted

People of color, undocumented people, working class families, and indigenous communities disproportionately bear the burden of poor policy decisions. Often, these are the same populations and communities that sugary beverage companies strategically target. So if you don’t have clean water, or you don’t like the taste of water because it’s full of sulfur, lead or arsenic, or you don’t trust your water source, what choice do you have?

“We must work at the intersection of health, justice, and racial equity to address complex issues like sugary drink consumption.” 

On How They Are Impacted

Beverage companies are capitalizing on our policy decisions and disinvestments–they are strategically creating and contributing to environments that are harming the health and wellbeing of communities of color, especially children. 

Xavier paints a picture of industry tactics for marketing sugary drinks by describing an iceberg. He explains that we only see the tip of this iceberg, which is direct marketing and advertising. These practices start trickling down until they are nearly below the surface: the languages they advertise in, the theme of advertisements, the celebrities who are selling products. Companies are not selling a product anymore. They’re selling a feeling. They’re selling a lifestyle. 

But are we paying attention to what’s below the tip of the iceberg? It’s much more than ads and marketing. Beverage companies use a surround sound approach. They market in the locations where kids go every day and they target children as young as age 2. The beverage industry lobbies state and local governments, they make charitable donations, secure pouring rights, place their brands in movies and sporting events, and more. Together, these practices drive consumption of sugary drinks and protect the profits companies make from selling these beverages that harm kids’ health. The beverage industry has created a system where their private profits are protected, but the health costs of consuming their products are subsidized.

“Their tactics are so aggressive that they have made sugary drinks ubiquitous and ever present in our children’s lives. These tactics, coupled with the fact that healthier choices like water are deemphasized or pushed towards the back in many under-resourced communities, has deeply, negatively impacted kids’ health.” 

On How We Can Address Sugary Drinks

Community Education 
As the old saying goes, “knowledge is power.” Xavier agrees, explaining that together we can change norms to counter the food and beverage industry’s marketing of unhealthy products in communities of color. It starts with educating communities about the health benefits of drinking water and the dangers linked with sugary drinks. 

For example, in Xavier’s hometown of Berkeley, California, the Multicultural Institute, which is funded by the city’s sugary drink tax revenue program, holds health workshops for children, day laborers, and immigrant communities. Its staff find creative ways to show the benefits of drinking water and teach residents about the dangers of sugary drinks, particularly how they lead to chronic health conditions like Type 2 diabetes. Watch how they do it here. 

From Xavier’s experience, he believes that once people understand the dangers of sugary drinks and how they are being unfairly targeted by the beverage industry, they won’t stand for it. 

Community Power 
Xavier has worked with other advocates and community partners to combat sugary drink consumption by supporting community-led advocacy. He believes that long-term sustainable solutions should be community-centric, so a one-size-fits all approach will not work. For example, just because a sugary drink tax has worked in Berkeley, California, doesn’t mean that same exact approach would work for another city or town. He recommends that residents of the impacted communities should decide how to approach sugary drink consumption and beverage company tactics in their own community. 

Community and equity-focused decision-making power should extend to deliberations about investing soda tax revenues back into the community. Xavier has found that the Berkeley sugary drink tax revenue program, which is overseen by a community board comprising stakeholders and residents, is a great example of the difference a community can make when they have the opportunity to address health priorities. Read more about the program’s impact here.

On the Role of Public Health Professionals and Other Stakeholders

Decreasing sugary drink consumption, particularly in the communities that are unfairly targeted by the beverage industry, is a complex, uphill battle. We need to uplift community voices and community priorities–and recognize them as the agency for change. Xavier shared a few pieces of advice for how we do this: 

  • Uplift community residents as leaders. Community residents, as they see and live with the ravages of preventable chronic disease, are already fighting the beverage industry writ large. They have the trust of their neighbors and can more readily oppose the predatory marketing practices.
  • Identify where and how you are needed. Find out what’s happening already, and figure out how you slot in. You don’t need to be the boss when you’re working with a community.
  • Practice authentic engagement. Don’t simply give residents a seat at the table–actively listen and truly value what is being said. Help create pathways for community-led action. 
  • Support communities to develop and strengthen their advocacy muscle. Many communities use grants to fund projects that address sugary drink consumption. Think about how you can help them sustain these efforts and develop long-term solutions so they can continue to fight the beverage industry after the grant is over. 

“Find those folks who are doing the great work and help them do what they do better, faster, more sustainably, more profoundly, because they need to address their issues in the way that makes sense for them and builds their power, so that tomorrow they can use that power to address other issues.”

On Our Future 

Xavier believes that “our opportunity is going into the areas of the country that have the highest rates of obesity, type 2 diabetes and other preventable chronic diseases that are directly related to overconsuming sugary drinks, finding groups that are already there doing some kind of health work, helping to strengthen what they’re doing already, and supporting them over time.”

He believes that by building this community power, we can change the effects of historical disinvestment in some communities, and even change the national narrative and policy priorities. 

“Across the country, from Michigan to South Dakota to California’s Central Valley, we need clean water, affordable water, accessible water in our communities that don’t even have these basic needs met. It starts with that. And it continues with prioritizing taking a stand against marketing and business practices that intentionally harm our health.”

Published on October 14, 2020

Priority issue

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