April 20, 2021

Release: Coke under fire at today’s annual shareholder meeting

Advocates Hold Soda Giant Accountable for Hypocrisy on Racial Justice, Voting Rights, Public Health

(April 20, 2021 – Atlanta, GA) – At Coca-Cola’s annual shareholder meeting, held online today, a resolution was presented calling on the company to be more transparent about the role of their sugar-filled products in exacerbating obesity, diabetes and other health issues, primarily in communities of color. Coca-Cola’s vast political influence was also called out, especially as it pertains to undermining voting rights of Black and Brown people in Georgia, where the company is headquartered. 

“Georgians are well aware of Coca-Cola in our hometown, and we feel your presence daily,” said Nsé Ufot, Executive Director of the New Georgia Project Action Fund (NGPAF), an organization dedicated to increasing civic participation of underrepresented and underserved communities of color in Georgia, who presented the resolution on behalf of Harrington Investments at today’s meeting. “We feel your presence when we see the targeted marketing  to our Black and Brown communities–communities that suffer disproportionately from diabetes, obesity and other diseases linked to sugar consumption. We are also well aware of your presence and power when it comes to the political arena, which has irresponsibly been used to undermine the well-being and fundamental rights of people of color, specifically our constitutionally protected freedom to vote.”  Ufot can be seen reading her full statement here.

Coca-Cola is also a member of powerful trade associations, including the National Restaurant Association and the Chamber of Commerce, which are actively opposing the long-overdue minimum wage increase to $15 per hour. 

“If Coca-Cola is genuinely committed to racial equity, they will put their money where their mouth is and get its money out of politics, starting by defunding the legislators, lobbyists, and trade groups behind today’s push for Jim Crow 2.0,” said Lucy Martinez Sullivan, Executive Director of Feed the Truth, a nonprofit organization working to make Big Food more transparent and accountable. “In Coca-Cola’s home state of Georgia, where Democrats scored victories in the presidential and U.S. Senate races fueled by historic Black turnout, Republican legislators—many of whom were recipients of campaign cash from Coke and its proxies—passed a voter suppression bill that is entirely undemocratic. Since then, there has been a corporate-financed GOP onslaught of over 360 similar bills in other states.

In today’s shareholder meeting, Ufot also spoke about the pandemic: “The COVID-19 pandemic put a spotlight on how dangerous to health Coke’s sugar laden products are, especially in light of the corporation’s racially-targeted marketing practices. Latino, Indigenous and Black Americans—all targets of Coca-Cola’s advertising—have a COVID-19 death rate that is double or more than White Americans. We know obesity, which disproportionately impacts Black and brown communities, makes COVID-19 even deadlier.”

“Now, with the pandemic, Coke’s marketing of their sugary products exacerbates an already existing problem,” said John Harrington, President & CEO of Harrington Investments, Inc. “The company needs to address this issue, and address it with third-party and truly independent experts.” 

Coke is drawing back from its initial support for voting rights which came after pressure from groups such as Fair Fight, NGPAF, Poor People’s Campaign and others for the corporation to end its silence on the Georgia bill. Corporate America overall has been under a microscope for its corrupting influence on our democracy since the Capitol Riots, when many pledged to defund election deniers and put a pause on political giving. “These corporations need to stop contributions to legislators, lobbyists, and trade groups that are trying to suppress the vote,” said Sullivan. 

In recent years, organizers have spoken truth to power at company shareholder meetings, telling stories about union busting, racist marketing, and beyond. From a hard-hitting report on the Coke-funded International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) to media coverage about the industry-influenced Dietary Guidelines for Americans, Big Food and Beverage has been forced into the spotlight. The impact came to a head in December of 2020, when Coca-Cola dropped its membership of ILSI, and then weeks later, ILSI North America rebranded itself completely, in an attempt to create distance from a year of bad press and decades of abuses. As a result of such activism, participation at shareholder meetings is now much more restricted. 

“Every year, Coca-Cola attempts to keep its reputation as shiny as an unopened can. But bubbling inside that sugar-sweetened disguise is a toxic reality,” said Ashka Naik from Corporate Accountability, a member-funded organization that challenges corporate abuse and engages in shareholder activism. “By funding junk science, racially targeted marketing, and political interference, Coca-Cola actively undermines the health and rights of Black, Indigenous, and other communities of color around the world. It’s high time for the corporation to stop all political interference.” 

“Whether it’s health and obesity, its commitment to support Black and Brown communities, or fighting voter suppression, Coca-Cola needs to walk their talk,” said Ufot at today’s meeting. “Coca-Cola has an opportunity to make good on its promise to racial justice by adopting today’s resolution, ceasing political activity that denigrates health equity, and aligning its rhetoric to combat suppressive voting laws with genuine action to defund those who would see a Jim Crow 2.0 come to pass in Georgia and beyond.”

Other Big Food actors such as Pepsi and McDonald’s should expect similar scrutiny from advocates this shareholder season. 

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