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Latino Leaders Should Decide Who Has Claim to Their Allegiance : Health: Beer and cigarette makers give big bucks to groups that shill for them. The community will pay a cost later.

October 22, 1989|FRANK del OLMO | Frank del Olmo is an editorial writer for The Times

The next time you attend a Cinco de Mayo ceremony, or practically any other public Latino celebration, don't be surprised if you think you've stumbled onto a beer convention. You're likely to see as many banners promoting Bud, Miller Lite, Corona and who knows what other brew as you are to see the Mexican or Puerto Rican flag.

Those banners symbolize how Latino organizations have allowed themselves to be used by major beer and tobacco companies in exchange for corporate donations. Earlier this month, a controversial new report on the negative effects this alliance of convenience may have in the Latino community--where alcohol abuse has long been a neglected problem--revived the debate over whether groups like the League of United Latin American Citizens and the National Council of La Raza should take money from companies like Coors and Phillip Morris. But don't expect things to change any time soon.

Among the charges made in "Marketing Disease to Hispanics" a 100-page report published by the Washington-based Center for Science in the Public Interest, is that increased advertising in Spanish by cigarette companies may contribute to an increase in lung cancer among Latinas. The report also restates the many grim statistics that illustrate how prevalent alcohol abuse is among Latino males.

The authors of the report would prefer that Latino groups stop accepting financial aid from brewery and tobacco companies, but they acknowledge it won't be easy. They estimate Latino groups get at least $1 million a year, and probably more, from alcohol and tobacco companies.

Like other self-help organizations that once looked to the government for support, Latino groups now have to get money wherever they can find it. For that, we can thank the Reagan Administration's penny-pinching on social programs, a policy President Bush seems unlikely to change any time soon. So the ties between Latino groups and liquor and tobacco companies are likely to grow stronger.

But if it's naive to expect Latino groups to give up money they get from Anheuser-Busch, Philip Morris and the like, that still doesn't mean they should surrender themselves to their corporate benefactors. And some of the activities documented in the report do seem to reflect an almost ingenuous attitude on the part of Latino leaders.

For example, is it really necessary for leaders of important national organizations like the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce to be photographed holding cans and bottles of Miller beer? That may get them more donations from Philip Morris, Miller's parent company, but it doesn't enhance the serious and (dare I add) sober image Latino business leaders should be trying to project.

Then there was the agreement that several Latino organizations negotiated with Coors a few years ago that linked company donations to increased consumption of its beer by Latinos. Many people criticized that pact when it was signed, although it seems to have worked for both sides. Latinos continue to imbibe Coors, and the company continues to donate about $500,000 a year to Latino causes. But with the growth in Latino population and buying power, their consumption of Coors would probably have gone up anyway. So why did otherwise respected Latino leaders have to become shills by seeming to declare Coors the "official" Latino beer?

Again, given the financial realities, this new report is not likely to get any Latino group to change its policy on outside donations. But maybe it will prod large national organizations like LULAC, the La Raza council and the GI Forum to put more money into programs designed to deal with Latino health issues--not just old problems like alcohol abuse, but frightening new ones like AIDS.

As of now, only one major Latino organization deals strictly with health issues, the National Coalition of Hispanic Health and Human Services Organizations. Although it it has accepted small grants from tobacco and liquor companies in the past, its officers recently decided that they will no longer do so. One good way to make up the predictable budget shortfall would be for every Latino group that does accept money from a beer or cigarette company to set aside some funds for the health coalition.

And if that's asking too much, here's a more modest proposal for Latino leaders: stop pimping booze and smokes. The leadership positions they hold--not to mention their own dignity--demands at least that much of them.

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