- The Washington Times - Monday, May 12, 2003

RWJ Foundation undermines celebration

Last week, many celebrated the Cinco de Mayo holiday as a time to celebrate a historic Mexican military victory over the French, and many chose to do so with adult beverages. Others might have had a virgin daiquiri, and that’s fine too. But in California, activists with an anti-alcohol agenda are attempting to hijack Cinco de Mayo by making it “dry.” They have recklessly lashed out against mainstream Latino organizations like the Hispanic Scholarship Fund and the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, whose only “sin” is accepting money from manufacturers of beer and distilled spirits.

Unfortunately, organizers of the alcohol-free “Cinco de Mayo Con Orgullo [with pride]” aren’t perfectly forthcoming about who is funding their efforts. They proclaim “our culture is not for sale.” However, the $9 billion Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), which spent more than $265 million assailing adult beverages between 1996 and 2002, has its fingerprints all over this supposedly grassroots movement.

Organizers received significant support from groups like the Center for Science in the Public Interest, the Marin Institute, the Pacific Institute for Research and Evaluation, and the Trauma Foundation — all RWJF — funded organizations with an anti-alcohol agenda of their own. The Center for Alcohol Marketing and Youth, which was founded with a $5 million grant from RWJF, just this week released a report accusing the alcohol industry of targeting Hispanic youth in its advertising.

A spokesperson for “Cinco de Mayo Con Orgullo” is a RWJF national fellow in “Developing Leadership in Reducing Substance Abuse,” which includes a cash award of $25,000 per year for three years. Significant press coverage that anti-alcohol Cinco de Mayo organizers enjoy comes from an epic article in the San Diego Union Tribune written by Jim Gogek, another RWJF “Developing Leadership in Reducing Substance Abuse” fellow. The annual $25,000 Gogek receives from RWJF supplements his paycheck from the Union Tribune, where he is an editorial writer.

Even though Gogek knows the money came from RWJF, he mislabeled “Cinco de Mayo Con Orgullo” as a “fledgling grass-roots movement,” and insulted Hispanic organizations by accusing them of accepting “blood money” from adult beverage companies. He also quoted a “professor of public health at Columbia University” condemning the alcohol industry for targeting youth and lying about its advertising. What he doesn’t say, however, is that the cited professor is also a program officer at RWJF.

Follow the money, and you’ll find that nearly every study disparaging alcohol in the mass media, every legislative push to limit alcohol marketing or increase taxes and every supposedly grassroots anti-alcohol organization leads back to Princeton, New Jersey, where RWJF is headquartered.

For example, the Department of Education’s Higher Education Center for Alcohol and Other Drug Prevention (HEC) argues for “changing people’s knowledge, attitudes, and behavioral intentions regarding alcohol use.” It supports “reducing alcohol availability” and “reducing alcohol promotion and marketing.” To bring about that change, HEC — an agency of the federal government — receives “supplemental funding” from RWJF.

The anti-alcohol movement has seized on a report called “The Alcohol Industry: Partner or Foe?” that aims to justify their attack on the responsible consumer. It claims there are two kinds of people: those who abuse alcohol, and those who abstain. The former shouldn’t have access to it, the argument goes, and the latter won’t care if you take it away.

The report was written by Richard Yoast, who heads the American Medical Association’s office of Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse. RWJF has given nearly $6 million to Yoast’s office since 1995.

The RWJF’s family of anti-alcohol warriors have been called “neo-prohibitionist.” They can’t advocate prohibition directly, so instead they seek to make alcohol prohibitively expensive through higher “sin” taxes, or prohibitively hard to come by, through restrictions on where and when one may drink. So, along with dry Cinco de Mayo celebrations, RWJF had funded campaigns to ban alcohol from airports, parks, cultural events, sports stadiums, and even golf courses. It funds efforts to restrict the hours bars, restaurants, and liquor stores can stay open. And it has never met an alcohol tax it didn’t like. Taken together, these efforts have been called prohibition “drip by drip.”

RWJF assessed its investment in “Cinco de Mayo Con Orgullo,” not in a few dry Cinco de Mayo celebrations, but in the positive press it generated for their movement, and the negative publicity it brought down on the alcohol industry. For example, organizers met with the Los Angeles County Commission on Alcohol, and four days later the Commission adopted a resolution urging Los Angeles County to end alcohol sales and sponsorships at all public events and county parks. What that has to do with Cinco de Mayo no one can say.

Unfortunately, forces outside the Hispanic community are trying to use Cinco de Mayo for their own ends. But they are dedicated neo-prohibitionists, and RWJF writes their checks.

Richard Berman is executive director for The Center for Consumer Freedom, a non-profit coalition supported by restaurants, food companies and consumers. (www.ConsumerFreedom.com)

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