Vegans take aim at the mayor’s new mustache.

Posing in a dairy promotional ad with a preternaturally thick film of milk above the upper lip is supposed to be cool, even sexy. In one spot, Dennis Rodman—arms folded behind his head, bare torso flexed—says milk is the drink of the gods. Britney Spears stands in studded black leather hip-huggers in another ad, chugging a glass and urging you to grow up. Mike Myers’ Austin Powers character, furry chest peeking through a blue silk robe, slips consumers the secret to keeping his mojo working: “It’s milk, baby, yeah!”

Public figures ranging from Pokémon’s cartoon star Pikachu to former U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services Donna Shalala have worn the milk mustache, so one might figure that D.C. Mayor Anthony A.Williams—who’s been invited to wear a pouty band of chocolate milk next week at a public event by the same dairy lobby—is in very good company.

To celebrate the joys and nutritional value of milk, Williams has declared next Friday, May 11—when the dairy industry’s Chocolate Milk Mustache Mobile Tour makes a D.C. stop at the National Zoo—”Drink Chocolate Milk Day,” and that’s when he’s supposed to don the mustache. The event will target kids’ taste buds with strawberry- and chocolate-smoothie samples, and provide computer kiosks for interactive learning about the different ways that, as the ads often put it, milk “does a body good.”

Not everyone in Chocolate City thinks that Williams’ new look will be a winner, however. The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine (PCRM), a D.C.-based preventative medicine nonprofit that promotes good health through veganism, is attacking the mayor’s involvement in the milk campaign.

“‘Got milk?’ really means ‘Got diarrhea?’” says PCRM nutrition director Amy Lanou. “It makes no sense for the mayor to promote a product that makes so many of his constituents sick.”

The campaign by the PCRM against the mayor’s milk mustache is the latest skirmish between the dairy industry and the nonprofit, which has taken aim at milk via the press and complaints filed with federal regulatory agencies. The group cites studies concluding that ailments such as asthma, allergies, prostate and ovarian cancer, heart disease, and juvenile-onset diabetes are linked to milk consumption, and it argues that D.C.’s African-American population is particularly at risk when drinking milk, because of its high rate of lactose intolerance, which is estimated at upward of 70 percent.

The PCRM isn’t afraid to hitch the latter argument to other political hot buttons. “For the mayor of a large African-American city and role model to allow himself to be portrayed [wearing a milk mustache], in addition to his position on closing D.C. General Hospital, makes me question his concern [for the health of his constituents],” argues PCRM physician and advocate Milton Mills. “His actions suggest that he is insensitive to the needs of the people he is trying to serve, and I find that very unfortunate.”

Williams plans to go ahead with the milk-mustache event, despite the flap. The District’s chief health officer, Dr. Ivan C.A. Walks, argues that there is a middle ground in the debate.

“It’s certainly appropriate for the mayor to support the drinking of milk, which is healthy for many citizens,” Walks observes. He acknowledges, however, that “there are many in the African-American and Asian communities who don’t tolerate milk well.” Lactose-free milk, Walks argues, is available and has greater nutritional value than “sugary sodas and drinks.”

The dairy industry is happy to leap to the mayor’s defense.

David Landau, manager of communication for the International Dairy Foods Association, says that “[the PCRM’s] claims are completely unsubstantiated and not supported by reputable health and nutrition organizations. We are not worried that this [protest] is going to stop the event. The bottom line is that dairy is doctor-recommended, and dairy’s role has long been established.”

At times, the battle over something ostensibly as wholesome as milk has grown downright nasty.

“In general, the mayor is a victim of the kind of aggressive misinformation campaign that the dairy industry conducts, and in that respect, I think he is like most of us,” says Mills. “We don’t know any better. We just take it as a matter of course that dairy food is necessary and good for us.”

Landau, on the other hand, argues that the PCRM is providing misinformation. “They’re just trying to garner publicity for a vegan agenda,” he says. “Don’t be fooled by their name. They are essentially an anti-dairy, anti-meat, animal-rights group.”

Simon Chaitowitz, communications director for the PCRM, readily admits that her group promotes a vegan agenda. “Decades of research show that a vegan diet extends life, reduces risks of many diseases, and is the healthiest diet,” she observes. “Our emphasis is human health, and animal products hurt that.” Chaitowitz argues that the dairy lobby is “a commercial group promoting a commercial product. They have their agenda, which is to promote the product that they’re selling.” CP