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Soda companies’ funding of health organizations raises conflict-of-interest concerns

REUTERS/Jacky Naegelen
After receiving more than $5 million from Coca-Cola and PepsiCo in 2009, Save the Children suddenly dropped its advocacy work to promote soda taxes.

Dozens of national health and medical organizations — including several run by the federal government — accepted money during the past five years from the nation’s two largest soda companies, the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo, according to a study published Monday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.

During that same period, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo lobbied against 29 public health bills aimed at reducing soda consumption or improving nutrition, the study also found. 

Such actions raise questions about the commitment of the organizations to improving the public’s health, conclude the study’s authors, Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University school of public health, and Daniel Aaron, a student at the university’s medical school. 

“Previous literature suggests that sponsorships of health organization can have a nefarious impact on public health,” they write. “Studies of alcohol company sponsorship and tobacco sponsorship suggest that corporate philanthropy is a marketing tool used to silence health organizations that might otherwise lobby and support public health measures against these industries.”

As an example, Siegel and Aaron point to Save the Children. After receiving more than $5 million from Coca-Cola and PepsiCo in 2009, the organization suddenly dropped its advocacy work to promote soda taxes.

Well-known groups

In the new study, Siegel and Aaron identify 96 national health organizations that accepted money from Coca-Cola or PepsiCo (or both) between 2011 and 2015.

Those organizations include well-known patient-advocacy groups (such as the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association and the American Lung Association), professional medical associations (such as the American Medical Association, the National Dental Association, and the American Academy of Family Physicians), academic institutions (such as Harvard University, the University of Georgia Department of Foods and Nutrition and the University of Washington Center for Public Health Nutrition) and several federal agencies (such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health).

Two diabetes organizations, the American Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, are also on the list — a finding that Siegel and Aaron say is surprising, given “the established link between diabetes and soda consumption.”

The researchers also identified 28 pieces of legislation or proposed regulations, including soda taxes and restrictions on advertising, that were opposed by the soda industry between 2011 and 2015.

“In 28 of 29 cases (97%), the positions of the soda companies were antagonistic to public health,” write Siegal and Aaron. On the federal level, for example, the companies opposed national voluntary guidelines for marketing food to children (in 2011), restrictions on the purchase of junk food with the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (2013) and a soda tax (2014). 

Only once did the soda companies lobby in support of a public health measure — legislation that limited the marketing of sugary drinks and junk foods in schools. But that legislation contained exemptions that made the companies happy, such as permitting them to market non-sugary “diet” drinks to students.

A public health emergency

This isn’t the first time that the soda industry has been “outed” for the seemingly incongruous act of sponsoring health and medical organizations. Nor is it the first time “Big Soda” has been compared to “Big Tobacco.”

This does appear to be the first study to take a comprehensive look at the issue, however.

And its findings are troubling. The U.S. is in the midst of an obesity epidemic that has become a public health crisis. Almost 40 percent of American adults are obese, and more than 70 percent are either overweight or obese. As a result, tens of millions of individuals are at increased risk of major chronic medical conditions, such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, arthritis and certain types of cancer.

Indeed, since 2008, obesity has imposed more of a burden than tobacco on the quality and quantity of years lived by Americans.

And soda is a major part of the obesity story. It’s estimated that soda consumption — which totaled 46 gallons per person in 2009 — is responsible for one fifth of the weight gain that occurred in the U.S. between 1977 and 2007.

Just say ‘no’

Siegel and Aaron urge health organizations to reject soda company sponsorships and look for other sources of funding.

Some of the 96 groups identified in the study — most notably the American Academy of Pediatrics, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, and the American College of Cardiology — have recently done that, they point out. Others should do the same. 

“By accepting funding from these companies, health organizations are inadvertently participating in their marketing plans,” write Siegel and Aaron.

“Now, most organizations refuse tobacco money. Perhaps soda companies should be treated similarly,” they add.

FMI:  You can download and read the full study (including the list of the 96 health organizations who accepted soda company funding between 2011 and 2015) on the American Journal of Preventive Medicine website.

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