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

BOGOTÁ, Colombia — It began with menacing phone calls, strange malfunctions of the office computers, and men in parked cars photographing the entrance to the small consumer advocacy group’s offices.

Then at dusk one day last December, Dr. Esperanza Cerón, the head of the organization, said she noticed two strange men on motorcycles trailing her Chevy sedan as she headed home from work. She tried to lose them in Bogotá’s rush-hour traffic, but they edged up to her car and pounded on the windows.

“If you don’t 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 often used against those who challenged the drug cartels that once dominated Colombia. But the narcotics trade was not the target of Dr. Cerón and her colleagues. Their work had upset a different multibillion-dollar industry: the makers of soda and other sugar-sweetened beverages.

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

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

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

“The industry sees sugary-drink taxes as an existential threat,” said Dr. James Krieger, executive director of Healthy Food America, which tracks beverage tax initiatives. In the United States, the industry has spent at least $107 million at the state and local levels since 2009 to beat back soda taxes and beverage warning labels, a new study found. Compared to the domestic tactics, Dr. Krieger said, overseas, “it’s much dirtier, much more bare-knuckled.”

The harassment of Dr. Cerón and her colleagues was never proven to be carried out by the industry, and federal prosecutors declined to investigate. In response to questions from The New York Times, Coke and Pepsi said they were not involved, and Postobón, the soda company that filed the complaint about the organization’s ad, deferred comment to The National Business Association of Colombia. The association, which represented national and international beverage makers on the soda tax issue, said it had nothing to do with the episodes.

The International Council of Beverages Associations, the parent organization of trade groups around the world fighting the taxes, would not directly answer the question 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 purpose, at any time, in any way,” Katherine W. Loatman, executive director of the organization, said in a statement.

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

Nevertheless, the idea is gaining momentum; such levies have been enacted in 30 countries, including India, Saudi Arabia, South Africa, Thailand, Britain and Brunei. More than a billion people now live in places where such taxes have driven up the price of sugar-sweetened beverages.

The battles have been particularly intense in emerging markets as the industry seeks to make up for falling soda consumption in wealthier nations. Latin America has surpassed the United States as the world’s biggest soft-drink market, according to the World Health Organization, with sales of carbonated soft drinks doubling there since 2000 while they declined in the United States.

The beverage industry asserts that soda taxes unfairly burden the poor, cause higher unemployment by squeezing industry sales, and fail to achieve their policy goal: reducing obesity. Studies of soda taxes have shown they lead to a drop in sales of sugar-sweetened beverages — a 10 percent sales decline, for example, over the first two years of Mexico’s tax — however, such measures are so new that there is not yet evidence of their impact on health.

“Slapping a tax on our products and walking away won’t do anything about obesity in this country or globally,” said William Dermody, spokesman for the American Beverage Association, an industry trade group.

But public health organizations, including the W.H.O., cite soda taxes as one of the most effective policy tools for cutting consumption of what nutritionists call a “liquid candy” that has contributed to an epidemic of obesity and related health conditions around the world. Dr. Kathryn Backholer, an expert on the issue at Deakin University in Australia, said taxes on soda were “low-hanging fruit” in the fight against obesity, diabetes and other weight-related diseases because such drinks are easily categorized to tax and sensible to target because they “have little or no nutritional value.”

Dr. Backholer and other experts said the turning point for soda tax proponents came in 2014, when Mexico — Coca-Cola’s biggest consumer market by per capita consumption — approved a 10 percent tax.

Mexico also showcased how dirty the fight could get.

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

Elsewhere in the world, soda companies have assiduously worked their government connections and economic clout. In internal company emails leaked to an American watchdog group last year, Coke executives described strategies for winning over 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 through our international network tells us that these types of threats must be constantly challenged before they get before a parliament for debate.”

In Colombia, where soda is often cheaper than bottled water, the soda-tax fight took place in a key market for beverage makers. Sales volume of carbonated drinks here has climbed more than 25 percent over the past 15 years; during that same time in the United States, it fell 12 percent, according to Euromonitor, a market research firm.

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

The stage was set for a clash between a powerful industry 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. After decades of civil war and narco-terrorism, Colombians were enjoying the fruits of an aggressive United States-backed military campaign that had largely decimated the country’s drug cartels. Unemployment was near historic lows, the poverty rate was dropping and millions were hopeful about the possibility of lasting peace with the country’s main rebel group, the FARC.

In March 2016, the country’s health minister, Alejandro Gaviria Uribe, proposed a 20 percent tax on soda and sugar-sweetened beverages — the equivalent of about 10 cents on a liter bottle — that became part of a larger tax overhaul backed by Colombia’s president and the Ministry of Finance.

“For the first time in our lives, we thought we might become a normal country and be able to deal with issues 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 suddenly we had the luxury to talk about what mothers are putting in their children’s lunchboxes.”

The measure was designed to inject $340 million a year into Colombia’s chronically underfunded national health care system, but Mr. Gaviria had a larger goal: to dampen soda consumption in a country with an obesity rate that had tripled since 1980 to 19 percent of adults. The fastest growth had occurred among Colombian youth from ages 5 to 17. Each year, 4,000 people age 30 to 70 die from obesity-related illnesses like heart disease and diabetes, the Health Ministry said.

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

They received crucial support from Bloomberg Philanthropies, a foundation created by the former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, which dispatched experts from the United States. It also provided pivotal funding, including $260,000 for the public service ad — an amount nearly equal to Educar’s entire annual budget — and paid for enhanced security at the group’s offices.

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

The debate escalated in August, with Congress still months from a vote, when television stations across the country began airing a public service announcement in support of the tax. The 30-second spot, produced by Dr. Cerón’s group, used data from the W.H.O. and featured a smartly dressed man drinking a series of sugary beverages throughout the day. Four sweetened drinks a day, the ad said, 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 sugar,” the narrator said. “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 were unhealthy.

Nutrition experts countered that the ad was wholly consistent with established science showing the impact of excess sugar consumption on weight and metabolic diseases like diabetes, gout and heart disease. The Harvard School of Public Health has chronicled multiple studies backing up this assertion, including a point nutritionists make repeatedly: that sugary beverages lack nutritional value and add calories without leaving consumers feeling full.

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

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

Borrowing almost identical language from Postobón’s complaint — which had been filed by a company lawyer who had previously led the agency — the superintendent’s office said consumers had the right to truthful information, not messages that were “misleading, imprecise and confusing.”

The ruling went on to bar Educar Consumidores employees from speaking publicly about the links between sugar and obesity, an edict so sweeping it included the Health Ministry’s own research on the subject.

The consumer agency did not respond to requests for comment.

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

“We were completely shut down,” Dr. Cerón said. “Censored.”

Criminal Inquiry Over a Blog Post

Postobón is a unit of one 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 modern identity through a raft of companies that own a soccer team, an insurance company and the dealerships that sell Dodge, Jeep and Ford vehicles.

Postobón is a storied brand that sells a rainbow of homegrown drinks. Among its best-known products are a cola called Colombiana and Manzana Postobón, a century-old apple-flavored drink that is something of a national icon.

Organización Ardila Lülle remained silent during the soda-tax debate, and company executives declined to be interviewed. Instead, Postobón, RCN and allies like the National Business 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 industry and the main media companies belong to the same economic conglomerates,” Mr. Gaviria, the health minister, said. “They have an intimidating power. And they used 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 often 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 remember that, during one of the debates, a senator said to me: ‘In all my years in Congress I’ve never seen a lobbying effort like this.’”

In October, not long after she was censored by the government, Dr. Cerón found a tactic she thought might keep attention on the subject without running afoul of the government’s order silencing her. In a blog item posted on the Alliance for Food Health website, she made fun of an RCN soap opera from 1980s called “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 thing to watch Sugar; it’s another to drink it in excess.”

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

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

It was around this time that employees at Educar’s offices began to complain about echoes and other voices on their cellphones. They suspected they might be under surveillance. Others found it hard to use the internet in the office. In October, Dr. Cerón’s office phone ceased functioning entirely. “Sometimes we could not work at all because our laptops would stop following orders and the mouse would just do what it wanted,” Diana Vivas, the group’s lawyer, said.

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

Called in to investigate, Andrés Erazo, Educar’s longtime tech consultant, said he discovered that antivirus software on workplace computers had been disabled. He also found spyware on the office router that gave an unknown outsider access to the organization’s web traffic and online communication. According to Mr. Erazo, three cellphones — including those used by Dr. Cerón and Ms. Vivas — had been compromised by spyware.

Mr. Erazo urged Dr. Cerón to buy 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 health campaign!”

An independent examination of Educar’s computers conducted for The New York Times by CSIETE, an internet security firm in Bogotá, did not turn up any malware. Giovanni Cruz Forero, the firm’s chief executive, said Educar employees had reformated one of the two office laptops the firm examined, which would have largely erased evidence of tampering. Mr. Cruz said it was also possible intruders took steps to erase their digital footprints. The firm did not examine cellphones of Educar employees.

One 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 same message. “Cállese,” he yelled before walking away, or, “keep your mouth shut.”

She reported both episodes to prosecutors.

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

Dr. Cerón stopped driving alone. And she pressed the local news media to cover the intimidation, but it was facing its own 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 among the most fortified compounds in the country. The need for such measures is driven home by a sixth-floor display: showcased behind glass is a yellowing front 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 huge truck bomb shattered the newspaper’s offices, killing a reporter and wounding 83 others. During the 1980s and 1990s, violence claimed the lives of a dozen El Espectador employees — all victims of Colombian drug cartels angered by the newspaper’s unflinching coverage.

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

Industry executives were not happy with the paper’s stance, but they got especially upset when it produced a video, part of a biweekly commentary called La Pulla, that lampooned tax opponents for ignoring scientific evidence about the risks of excess sugar.

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

With a tone both cheeky and indignant, La Pulla takes on the most contentious issues 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 one 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, said he had received a call from a senior advertising executive at the newspaper who told him a representative from Coca-Cola had called 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 small 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 industry.

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

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

Other media outlets felt the industry’s pressure.

At the Colombian branch of the online 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, though not on the home page, making it hard for readers to find.

The incident was part of what prompted Vice Colombia’s founding editor, Juan Camilo Maldonado, to resign. Mr. Maldonado declined to be interviewed for this article but colleagues with direct knowledge of the incident said he was dismayed the company would cave to pressure from advertisers.

A spokesman for Vice did not address the reasons for Mr. Maldonado’s resignation, but said, “The fact that all of the stories were published and were critical of the soda industry speaks for itself.”

On the last day of 2016, opponents of the tax were victorious. Using a complex procedural maneuver, congressional leaders killed the soda tax, dropping it from the larger tax overhaul package.

“The problem isn’t just sugar,” said Iván Duque, a senator from the right-leaning Democratic Center party and a contender in next year’s presidential race, who was a vocal critic of the tax. “We need a national plan to fight sedentary lifestyles, better product labeling and education efforts that teach people to eat more fruit, fish and vegetables.”

A New Drink

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

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

Last summer, Postobón began what it called “a new social strategy focused on nutrition.” The campaign, unveiled in Manaure, an impoverished city in Colombia’s far north revolves around Kufu, a new mango-flavored beverage formulated for children. It is part of the industry’s goal of tackling public health through voluntary efforts.

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

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

The article in La República, however, did not mention one key ingredient: sugar. According to the label on the drink, one juice box of it contains 13 grams of sugar, more than half the daily recommended level for children.

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