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20:00, 15 November 2017

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

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — It started with menacing telephone calls, strange malfunctions of the office computer systems, and males in parked vehicles photographing the entrance to the modest customer advocacy group’s offices.

Then at dusk 1 day last December, Dr. Esperanza Cerón, the head of the organization, stated she noticed two strange men on motorcycles trailing her Chevy sedan as she headed property from perform. She tried to lose them in Bogotá’s rush-hour site visitors, but they edged up to her automobile and pounded on the windows.

“If you do not 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 usually employed against these who challenged the drug cartels that when dominated Colombia. But the narcotics trade was not the target of Dr. Cerón and her colleagues. Their operate had upset a various multibillion-dollar market: the makers of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages.

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

The backlash was fierce. A Colombian government agency, responding to a complaint by the nation’s major soda organization 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 dangers of sugar, under penalty of a $ 250,000 fine.

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

“The business sees sugary-drink taxes as an existential threat,” stated Dr. James Krieger, executive director of Wholesome Meals America, which tracks beverage tax initiatives. In the United States, the market has spent at least $ 107 million at the state and nearby levels given that 2009 to beat back soda taxes and beverage warning labels, a new study found. Compared to the domestic tactics, Dr. Krieger mentioned, overseas, “it’s significantly dirtier, much far more bare-knuckled.”

The harassment of Dr. Cerón and her colleagues was never established to be carried out by the market, and federal prosecutors declined to investigate. In response to questions from The New York Instances, Coke and Pepsi stated they had been not involved, and Postobón, the soda business that filed the complaint about the organization’s ad, deferred comment to The National Organization Association of Colombia. The association, which represented national and international beverage makers on the soda tax problem, mentioned it had nothing to do with the episodes.

The International Council of Beverages Associations, the parent organization of trade groups around the planet fighting the taxes, would not directly answer the query about whether its allies in Colombia were connected to the alleged harassment, but it condemned such actions.

“We reject under any circumstance the improper influence or harassment of any individual or organization for any objective, at any time, in any way,” Katherine W. Loatman, executive director of the organization, stated in a statement.

The knowledge in Colombia may possibly be the most intense, but a juggernaut of sector opposition has killed or stalled soda tax proposals around the globe, including in Russia, Germany, Israel and New Zealand.

Nonetheless, the notion is gaining momentum such levies have been enacted in 30 nations, including India, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Thailand, Britain and Brunei. Far more than a billion individuals now reside in areas where such taxes have driven up the price of sugar-sweetened beverages.

The battles have been particularly intense in emerging markets as the sector seeks to make up for falling soda consumption in wealthier nations. Latin America has surpassed the United States as the world’s largest soft-drink market place, according to the Planet Well being Organization, with sales of carbonated soft drinks doubling there given that 2000 while they declined in the United States.

The beverage market asserts that soda taxes unfairly burden the poor, trigger greater unemployment by squeezing sector sales, and fail to achieve their policy goal: decreasing obesity. Research of soda taxes have shown they lead to a drop in sales of sugar-sweetened beverages — a 10 % sales decline, for instance, over the first two years of Mexico’s tax — nonetheless, such measures are so new that there is not but evidence of their impact on well being.

“Slapping a tax on our items and walking away will not do anything about obesity in this country or globally,” mentioned William Dermody, spokesman for the American Beverage Association, an business trade group.

But public wellness organizations, like the W.H.O., cite soda taxes as one of the most efficient policy tools for cutting consumption of what nutritionists get in touch with a “liquid candy” that has contributed to an epidemic of obesity and related well being circumstances around the globe. Dr. Kathryn Backholer, an professional on the situation at Deakin University in Australia, mentioned taxes on soda were “low-hanging fruit” in the fight against obesity, diabetes and other weight-connected diseases because such drinks are simply categorized to tax and sensible to target since they “have tiny or no nutritional worth.”

Dr. Backholer and other authorities stated the turning point for soda tax proponents came in 2014, when Mexico — Coca-Cola’s most significant customer market place by per capita consumption — approved a 10 percent tax.

Mexico also showcased how dirty the fight could get.

Final year, quite a few advocates of a proposal to double Mexico’s tax to 20 percent received strings of upsetting and fraudulent texts from unknown numbers. One particular man got a message saying his daughter had been seriously injured another identified a text saying his wife was having an affair a third received a link to a funeral residence. Spyware was discovered on the phones. The proposal failed.

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

Elsewhere in the planet, soda firms have assiduously worked their government connections and economic clout. In internal company emails leaked to an American watchdog group last year, Coke executives described methods for winning more than government ministers and other officials in Bosnia and Herzegovina, Ecuador, Portugal, and regions of Spain.

The Australian Beverages Council wrote in its 2016 annual report that fighting a soft drinks tax “has been consuming vast amounts of resources,” and that “our learnings from other markets via our international network tells us that these kinds of threats should be constantly challenged prior to they get ahead of a parliament for debate.”

In Colombia, where soda is often less costly than bottled water, the soda-tax fight took place in a important market for beverage makers. Sales volume of carbonated drinks right here has climbed more than 25 percent over the previous 15 years for the duration of that very same time in the United States, it fell 12 percent, according to Euromonitor, a industry research firm.

Coke and Pepsi had been far significantly less visible in the Colombia battle, leaving the huge national beverage firm, Postobón, in the spotlight. Postobón, a drinks maker and distributor for Pepsi, is part of a large conglomerate that includes sugar cane growers, sugar mills and the country’s biggest media organization, RCN Televisión, which helped disseminate the anti-tax message. Postobón and RCN declined interview requests.

The stage was set for a clash between a strong business and a stubborn public advocate.

Showdown Over an Ad

In early 2016, Colombia, a nation of 49 million, was facing the unfamiliar prospect of stability and peace. Soon after decades of civil war and narco-terrorism, Colombians have been enjoying the fruits of an aggressive United States-backed military campaign that had largely decimated the country’s drug cartels. Unemployment was close to historic lows, the poverty rate was dropping and millions have been hopeful about the possibility of lasting peace with the country’s primary rebel group, the FARC.

In March 2016, the country’s well being minister, Alejandro Gaviria Uribe, proposed a 20 % tax on soda and sugar-sweetened beverages — the equivalent of about ten cents on a liter bottle — that became component of a bigger tax overhaul backed by Colombia’s president and the Ministry of Finance.

“For the first time in our lives, we thought we may well become a regular nation and be capable to deal with concerns other than violence,” said Diana Guarnizo, a lawyer with Dejusticia, a rights group that helped promote the soda tax. “Here we were, an organization that had dealt with peace, violence, land reform and gross injustice, and abruptly we had the luxury to talk about what mothers are placing in their children’s lunchboxes.”

The measure was developed to inject $ 340 million a year into Colombia’s chronically underfunded national well being care technique, but Mr. Gaviria had a bigger purpose: to dampen soda consumption in a nation with an obesity price that had tripled because 1980 to 19 % of adults. The quickest development had occurred among Colombian youth from ages five to 17. Every single year, 4,000 folks age 30 to 70 die from obesity-related illnesses like heart disease and diabetes, the Well being Ministry mentioned.

The concern attracted the focus of Dr. Cerón, whose 10-employee organization had previously worked on climate adjust, smoking restrictions and the lack of potable water in poor communities. Encouraged by the overall health minister’s soda tax announcement, they formed a coalition of 3 dozen civic organizations they called the Alliance for Meals Health.

They received vital assistance from Bloomberg Philanthropies, a foundation produced by the former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which dispatched specialists from the United States. It also supplied pivotal funding, like $ 260,000 for the public service ad — an quantity practically equal to Educar’s whole annual price range — and paid for enhanced safety at the group’s offices.

Opinion polls showed that 70 percent of the public embraced the tax. Legislative backing was harder to come by, nonetheless: 42 legislators in the 268-seat Congress stated they supported the measure.

The debate escalated in August, with Congress still months from a vote, when television stations across the nation began airing a public service announcement in support of the tax. The 30-second spot, made by Dr. Cerón’s group, employed data from the W.H.O. and featured a smartly dressed man drinking a series of sugary beverages all through the day. 4 sweetened drinks a day, the ad mentioned, could deliver up to 47 teaspoons of sugar. Then it showed an overweight couple, a gangrenous foot and what appeared to be a man in cardiac arrest, followed by an admonition. “Better to drink water, milk or teas without having sugar,” the narrator stated. “Take care of your life. Take it seriously.”

Postobón, the soft drink company, promptly filed a complaint with the government’s consumer protection agency, the Superintendent of Industry and Commerce, claiming the ad’s use of the teaspoon as a unit of measurement was imprecise and that it unfairly suggested that all sweetened drinks had been unhealthy.

Nutrition authorities countered that the ad was wholly constant with established science displaying the influence of excess sugar consumption on weight and metabolic ailments like diabetes, gout and heart disease. The Harvard School of Public Well being has chronicled multiple studies backing up this assertion, including a point nutritionists make repeatedly: that sugary beverages lack nutritional worth and add calories without having leaving consumers feeling full.

Dr. Luis Fernando Gómez, a professor of preventive medicine at Javeriana University in Bogotá who backed the tax measure, stated Postobón’s allegations about the industrial had been disingenuous. “Every fact and figure cited in that ad was backed up by mainstream science,” he stated.

But the head of the Colombian customer protection agency, a presidential appointee, sided with the business petitioners. Just two weeks later, in a decision that Colombian legal specialists described as unusually swift, the agency ordered the commercial withdrawn.

Borrowing almost identical language from Postobón’s complaint — which had been filed by a business lawyer who had previously led the agency — the superintendent’s office stated consumers had the correct to truthful data, not messages that have been “misleading, imprecise and confusing.”

The ruling went on to bar Educar Consumidores workers from speaking publicly about the hyperlinks between sugar and obesity, an edict so sweeping it integrated the Wellness Ministry’s own investigation on the topic.

The customer agency did not respond to requests for comment.

The actions stunned legal analysts and overall health advocates. “It was unprecedented,” stated Ch’uya H. Lane, regional director for obesity prevention efforts at the International Overall health Advocacy Incubator, which is affiliated with Bloomberg Philanthropies.

“We have been totally shut down,” Dr. Cerón said. “Censored.”

Criminal Inquiry More than a Blog Post

Postobón is a unit of one particular of Colombia’s largest and most respected conglomerates, Organización Ardila Lülle. Founded in the early 1950s by Carlos Ardila Lülle, 87, Organización Ardila Lülle has helped define the country’s contemporary identity through a raft of firms that personal a soccer team, an insurance firm and the dealerships that sell Dodge, Jeep and Ford cars.

Postobón is a storied brand that sells a rainbow of homegrown drinks. Amongst its very best-recognized goods are a cola named Colombiana and Manzana Postobón, a century-old apple-flavored drink that is anything of a national icon.

Organización Ardila Lülle remained silent in the course of the soda-tax debate, and organization executives declined to be interviewed. Instead, Postobón, RCN and allies like the National Enterprise Association of Colombia carried the message that the tax would cost jobs, decimate independent convenience shop owners and choke the economy.

“In Colombia, the sugar market and the main media organizations belong to the very same economic conglomerates,” Mr. Gaviria, the well being minister, mentioned. “They have an intimidating energy. And they employed it.”

That fall, at least 90 lobbyists worked to sway legislators, according to a tally of visitor logs obtained by Educar Consumidores. During committee hearings on the measure, lobbyists usually sat next to lawmakers, a flagrant violation of congressional rules, said Óscar Ospina Quintero, a legislator from the Green Alliance party. Mr. Ospina said he protested the lobbyists’ presence in the chamber but was rebuffed by congressional leaders.

“The response was fierce,” Mr. Gaviria said. “I don’t forget that, during 1 of the debates, a senator stated to me: ‘In all my years in Congress I’ve in no way observed a lobbying effort like this.’”

In October, not extended following she was censored by the government, Dr. Cerón found a tactic she thought may well keep interest on the subject without operating afoul of the government’s order silencing her. In a weblog item posted on the Alliance for Meals Well being web site, she produced fun of an RCN soap opera from 1980s named “Azúcar,” or Sugar, that was that set in Colombia’s sugar cane heartland. Scrawled across a publicity poster for the show, she wrote, “It’s one particular thing to watch Sugar it is an additional to drink it in excess.”

An RCN lawyer demanded she delete the post, claiming it was intellectual home theft. She complied, but the network filed a complaint with federal prosecutors who, in turn, opened a criminal investigation. The case, nevertheless pending, carries a attainable fine of $ 300,000.

“If they win,” she stated. “I will be financially ruined.”

It was about this time that personnel at Educar’s offices started to complain about echoes and other voices on their cellphones. They suspected they may possibly be below surveillance. Others found it hard to use the web in the office. In October, Dr. Cerón’s workplace phone ceased functioning totally. “Sometimes we could not function at all because our laptops would cease following orders and the mouse would just do what it wanted,” Diana Vivas, the group’s lawyer, mentioned.

Ms. Lane of Bloomberg Philanthropies was so concerned that she stopped utilizing email and the telephone to discuss approach with Educar. Instead, she moved communications to some of the exact same encrypted apps utilized after the surveillance of soda-tax advocates was discovered in Mexico.

Named in to investigate, Andrés Erazo, Educar’s longtime tech consultant, said he found that antivirus software program on workplace computers had been disabled. He also identified spyware on the office router that gave an unknown outsider access to the organization’s web visitors and on the internet communication. According to Mr. Erazo, 3 cellphones — which includes those employed by Dr. Cerón and Ms. Vivas — had been compromised by spyware.

Mr. Erazo urged Dr. Cerón to purchase new cellphones but she refused. “If they’re listening to us, what are they going to hear?” he recalled her telling him. “We’re talking about a public wellness campaign!”

An independent examination of Educar’s computer systems performed for The New York Times by CSIETE, an world wide web security firm in Bogotá, did not turn up any malware. Giovanni Cruz Forero, the firm’s chief executive, mentioned Educar employees had reformated a single of the two office laptops the firm examined, which would have largely erased proof of tampering. Mr. Cruz mentioned it was also possible intruders took methods to erase their digital footprints. The firm did not examine cellphones of Educar personnel.

A single early morning in mid-November, Dr. Cerón was startled awake at 5 a.m. by a call to her cellphone.

“Shut up you old wench,” the caller yelled, according to a report she filed with the Fiscal General de la Nación, Colombia’s prosecutorial agency.

In early December, Dr. Cerón was walking to the gym when a man, his face obscured by a hooded sweatshirt, accosted her with the very same message. “Cállese,” he yelled just before walking away, or, “keep your mouth shut.”

She reported each episodes to prosecutors.

A spokesman for the prosecutorial agency declined to comment on Dr. Céron’s complaints, citing privacy rules that bar discussion of situations with anybody not directly involved.

Dr. Cerón stopped driving alone. And she pressed the nearby news media to cover the intimidation, but it was facing its personal challenges from tax opponents.

Pressuring the Media

With its cordon of armed guards, bomb-sniffing dogs and airport-style X-ray machines, the headquarters of Colombia’s oldest newspaper, El Espectador, is amongst the most fortified compounds in the country. The need for such measures is driven property by a sixth-floor display: showcased behind glass is a yellowing front web page reporting the assassination of El Espectador’s editor, Guillermo Cano, who was gunned down on Dec. 17, 1986, as he drove home from work.

Three years later, a enormous truck bomb shattered the newspaper’s offices, killing a reporter and wounding 83 other people. In the course of the 1980s and 1990s, violence claimed the lives of a dozen El Espectador staff — all victims of Colombian drug cartels angered by the newspaper’s unflinching coverage.

El Espectador news editors mentioned they sought to cover the soda tax fight evenhandedly in the news pages, even as the paper supported the tax in its editorials.

Sector executives were not content with the paper’s stance, but they got specially upset when it produced a video, component of a biweekly commentary named La Pulla, that lampooned tax opponents for ignoring scientific evidence about the dangers of excess sugar.

“Once we published the video, issues got crazy,” the paper’s health and science editor, Pablo Correa, stated.

With a tone both cheeky and indignant, La Pulla takes on the most contentious problems of the day. In the soda tax episode, the host, María Paulina Baena, with granules of sugar flecking her lips, skewered the industry and members of Congress for spreading misinformation about the proposed tax. She ended the video with the image of a Sprite bottle and a tagline from a single of the popular ads for the drink: “That’s just the way it is.”

The video was posted just before midnight on Dec. 15, quickly drawing 500,000 views. In the morning, Fidel Cano, the publisher of El Espectador and a nephew of the paper’s slain editor, mentioned he had received a contact from a senior advertising executive at the newspaper who told him a representative from Coca-Cola had referred to as in protest and demanded that the Sprite bottle be removed.

Mr. Cano winced recalling what came next. With the prospect of litigation and lost ad revenue, he says he ordered the bottle edited out. In a modest act of defiance, he allowed the Sprite advertisement tagline to remain.

The altered video went viral, drawing more than two million views and prompting a public discussion about censorship and the power of the soda market.

“Did they win?” Mr. Cano reflected. “Not truly.”

Reached by phone, the newspaper’s vice president for marketing, Mauricio Umaña, disputed Mr. Cano’s account, saying he had not received a contact from Coca-Cola or any other soda company executive.

Other media outlets felt the industry’s stress.

At the Colombian branch of the on the web news site Vice, the editorial staff clashed with advertising executives over their efforts to squelch a column criticizing the soda industry. Vice had previously run two opinion pieces in favor of the soda tax and the disputed third column did ultimately run, even though not on the house page, creating it tough for readers to find.

The incident was portion of what prompted Vice Colombia’s founding editor, Juan Camilo Maldonado, to resign. Mr. Maldonado declined to be interviewed for this post but colleagues with direct knowledge of the incident stated he was dismayed the business would cave to stress from advertisers.

A spokesman for Vice did not address the motives for Mr. Maldonado’s resignation, but said, “The truth that all of the stories have been published and had been crucial of the soda sector speaks for itself.”

On the final day of 2016, opponents of the tax have been victorious. Using a complicated procedural maneuver, congressional leaders killed the soda tax, dropping it from the larger tax overhaul package.

“The dilemma isn’t just sugar,” stated Iván Duque, a senator from the correct-leaning Democratic Center party and a contender in subsequent year’s presidential race, who was a vocal critic of the tax. “We need to have a national strategy to fight sedentary lifestyles, better product labeling and education efforts that teach individuals to eat a lot more fruit, fish and vegetables.”

A New Drink

Dr. Cerón and her group got a Pyrrhic victory two weeks ago when the country’s Constitutional Court overturned the customer agency’s choice to silence Educar and ordered the agency to “abstain from censoring any other ad related to public wellness in the future,” according to the ruling.

“It was a great victory for free of charge speech in Colombia,” Dr. Cerón said. “The only pity is it came also late.”

Final summer time, Postobón started what it named “a new social method focused on nutrition.” The campaign, unveiled in Manaure, an impoverished city in Colombia’s far north revolves about Kufu, a new mango-flavored beverage formulated for kids. It is element of the industry’s aim of tackling public overall health via voluntary efforts.

Postobón lauded the drink’s added vitamins and minerals, saying they would “promote cognitive development, strengthen immunity and promote wholesome bones,” according to a glowing account of the event published by the newspaper La República, acquired last year by Postobón’s parent business, Organización Ardila Lülle.

Postobón mentioned it would commit $ 120,000 to evaluate the initiative, which would provide free Kufu each and every day to thousands of poor children in the region.

The report in La República, even so, did not mention one particular crucial ingredient: sugar. According to the label on the drink, a single juice box of it contains 13 grams of sugar, more than half the every day suggested level for kids.

NYT &gt Americas

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