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Worldwide Protest Against Coke's HIV/AIDS Policy - 2002-10-18


The international soft drink corporation, Coca Cola is the subject of a major AIDS demonstration worldwide Thursday, October 17th. The New York based activist group “Health Gap” is sponsoring the global day of protest against Coke.

In June of last year, Coca-Cola announced its “AIDS in Africa” initiative which included treatment for workers. Critics say Coca-Cola has not followed through on it’s original promise. Asia Russell of the New York based activist organization Health Gap is one of those critics.

She says, “For over a year, Coca-Cola hasn’t even fulfilled its initial commitment that was announced before the U-N General Assembly special session last Spring to its workers in the continent of africa. Unfortunately Coca-Cola has been too slow in coming to grips with the reality … coming to grips with the human rights crisis that they have on their hands, and the economic crisis that they are facing in untreated HIV among their work force in Africa.”

Activists say the Corporation continues to fall short of providing all its workers and family members – including children – living with HIV / AIDS with affordable life –sustaining treatment and care. Among the protester demands is that Coke quickly incorporate comprehensive HIV / AIDS policies and programs, including anti-retroviral therapy free of charge in its operations in Africa.

Late last month -- just three weeks before today’s protest -- the Coca-Cola Africa Foundation announced an initiative to extend HIV/AIDS healthcare benefits. the extension would include antiretroviral therapy, to all employees and spouses in Arica. Sharonann Lynch, also of health gap in new york ,says there are underlying problems with the statement.

Ms. Lynch says, "Right now, the devil is in the details. and the details, as far as we know are this … Coca-Cola refuses to extend coverage to dependents other than spouses, … also, Coca Cola is requiring a 10 percent co-payment, an out of pocket cost for workers – entirely not affordable for workers to pay that much “

Ms. Lynch says the drugs are expected to become less expensive. and she says when they do, Coca-Cola plans to withdraw its share of the co-payment, which amounts to about 50 percent. She says so far, only Coca-Cola’s eight largest bottlers out of a total of 40 in Africa, are committed to this program. She mentions other corporations on the Continent that are already doing a better job.

"So far," she says, "they have been behind the curve of even corporations such as Daimler - Chrysler and Heinekin, that provide AIDS treatment free, at no charge to workers and their families." One of the pharmaceutical partners in the recent Coca-Cola Africa foundation’s announcement is GlaxoSmithKline. Health Gap’s Asia Russell says one of the concerns about this partnership is that there’s no flexibility for negotiating less expensive generic drugs.

Ms. Russell says, "We’re concerned right now, based on what we’re hearing from Coke, that they won’t negotiate with generic companies, they won’t even negotiate with multiple suppliers, but instead they’ll stick just with GlaxoSmithKline … and what’ll end up happening is unfortunately workers will be left behind. we need assurance from Coke that they have a timeline and a plan to negotiate with other suppliers including generic manufacturers."

Health Gap contends that the Corporation can easily afford these subsidies, saying Coca-Cola’s net revenues last year in Africa alone exceeded $620 million – it’s worldwide net revenues reached $20 billion. Health Gap also says Coke’s profit margin in Africa is expected to rise 12% in the next four years, exceeding its profit margins in all other regions of the world. Ms. Russell admits that Coca-Cola’s announcement last month indicates a positive first step. But she says the Corporation can -- and must -- do much more for its Africa employees concerning AIDS treatment.

To get Coca Cola’s perspective on these issues, we made repeated calls to the Corporation. But no one would comment.