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Sugar shock: Physician group forms alliance with Coca-Cola

Early last month, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) launched a “Consumer Alliance” corporate partnership program.

Early last month, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) launched a “Consumer Alliance” corporate partnership program. Through the program, corporations are being offered the opportunity to, as the AAFP press release put it, work with the academy “to develop educational materials to help consumers make informed decisions so they can include the products they love in a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle.”

The first corporate partner to sign on (with a reported one-year, six-figure grant to AAFP) was Coca-Cola.

I’m still trying to wrap my mind around the idea that Coca-Cola’s sodas can have a positive role in a healthy lifestyle.

For, as Harvard University epidemiologist and nutrition expert Dr. Walter Willett told the Associated Press on Thursday (hat tip, Schwitzer Health News Blog), “Coca-Cola, like other sodas, causes enormous suffering and premature death by increasing the risks of obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, gout, and cavities.”

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Is Coca-Cola going to be happy if that kind of message goes up on AAFP’s consumer health and wellness website? I don’t think so.

It’s much more likely the health warnings about sodas will get watered down on the AAFP website. And, let’s face it, that’s probably the outcome Coca-Cola is hoping for.

AAFP’s CEO, Dr. Douglas Henley, has said that Coca-Cola won’t have any influence over the academy’s health messages. The website will, he promised, include information about the association between soda consumption and obesity and will emphasize sugar-free alternatives.

But research has linked sugar-free as well as sugary soft drinks to an increased risk of metabolic syndrome, a group of risk factors associated with the development of diabetes and cardiovascular disease.

Will that negative information about sugar-free soft drinks also be highlighted on the website?

Mimicking the tobacco industry?

The announcement of the alliance with Coca-Cola has caused a mini-mutiny among some of AAFP’s 94,000-plus (physicians and medical students) members. Led by a group of family physicians in the San Francisco area, a small number of members have resigned in protest.

“Having the soda industry create materials about making the right choices is like having the fox guard the hen house,” one of the San Francisco doctors who resigned said in a press release. “This is reminiscent of when the tobacco industry enlisted doctors to endorse cigarette brands as ‘mild.’”

A national petition drive of “Family Doctors Against the AAFP-Coca-Cola Partnership” has now been launched. As of this morning, it had 77 signatures, including one Minnesota physician, Dr. Michael Schoenleber of Roseville, who signed it Thursday.

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“I can not believe you [AAFP] did this,” Schoenleber wrote on the petition. “You have made fools of your members. I am renouncing my membership from AAFP after 25 years.

UPDATE: I was able to talk with Dr. Schoenleber on the phone. He says he was “pretty livid” when he first learned about AAFP’s alliance with Coca-Cola. The pediatrician who brought the issue to his attention “thought it was a joke,” he says.

Schoenleber, who practices at HealthPartners Arden Hills Clinic has been studying metabolic and nutritional medicine and says he now advises everybody he knows not to drink sodas. In addition to the link with metabolic syndrome, sodas “cause calcium to be leached out of your bone,” he says. “You end up more likely to develop osteoporosis and fractures later in life.”

“Any professional academy I’m associated with can’t be in bed with someone who creates something that I think is a poison,” Schoenleber says.

No local mutiny

Yesterday, I spoke with Dr. Patricia Fontaine, president of the AAFP’s local chapter, the Minnesota Academy of Family Physicians. At that time, she was unaware of any Minnesota members who had resigned because of this issue.

“We haven’t had any calls,” she said.

Fontaine was also quick to point out that the decision about the alliance was made at the board level. “Chapters weren’t really involved,” she said.

Fontaine said she sees both sides of the issue. 

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“On the one side,” she said, “the academy is making it very clear that they’re not endorsing any specific Coca-Cola products. On the other side, there is the appearance of an endorsement, and, as physicians, we all know there are problems with sweetened soft drinks being probably the number one source of sugar in the diet.”

“There are even some studies that suggest that artificially sweetened beverages may have some downsides,” she added.

Fontaine said, however, that  it would be “irresponsible” for her to drop her membership over this issue, for that would be making the controversy seem larger than it really is.

The content on the website is slated to appear in January,  Fontaine noted, and AAFP officials have said they’ll retain total editorial control of the information that’s presented.

“Until that content appears, I’m going to give [AAFP] the benefit of the doubt,” she said. 

In the meantime, the Associated Press reports that the AAFP Foundation, a separate philanthropic group, has accepted financial support from “drug companies, McDonalds, PepsiCo and a beef industry group” and “is in talks with other foundation contributors to fund other materials” for the AAFP.

Are health consumers to believe that those materials also won’t be watered down? Sounds like the floodgate is already open.