Staff Writer, MedPage Today
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Some of the nation’s leading health organizations, even those specifically dedicated to combating the obesity epidemic, have been found to accept “sweet deals” from Big Soda, according to a report in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
From 2011 to 2015, the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo sponsored programs at 96 national health organizations and lobbied against 29 public health bills proposed to reduce soda consumption or promote better nutrition, wrote Daniel Aaron, a medical student at Boston University, and Michael Siegel, MD, professor of community health sciences at the Boston University School of Public Health.
Among the organizations accepting such sponsorships: the CDC, the American Diabetes Association, the American Cancer Society, the American Heart Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics.
“The soda companies can neutralize potential legislative opposition by invoking reciprocity and financial dependence from national health organizations,” Aaron noted in an email to MedPage Today. “Rather than supporting public health, organizations may become unwitting partners in a corporate marketing strategy that undermines public health.
“Health organizations, whose main goal should be to support the health of the population they serve, are accepting money from soda companies and, I would argue, in many cases, are reneging on these responsibilities.”
Robert Lustig, MD, of the University of California at San Francisco, also expressed concern regarding the pernicious nature of accepting money from soda companies: “If you believe ‘a calorie is a calorie,’ and that sugar is just ’empty calories,’ then the funding of health organizations by soda companies would just be ‘protecting their market share.’ But if ‘a calorie is not a calorie,’ and sugar is detrimental unrelated to its calories, then funding of these organizations by soda companies is egregious, immoral, and should be illegal,” he said.
“Research has proven that sugar is metabolized like alcohol; causes type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and fatty liver disease; and is addictive, unrelated to its calories. Even the soda companies agree that their product causes tooth decay, the biggest producer of chronic pain on the planet.”
Aaron and Siegel used a systematic approach to investigate sponsorships of U.S. health and medical organizations by the Coca-Cola Company, PepsiCo, or both between 2011 and 2015. After identifying organizations through a Google search, the team completed a rigorous literature search, as well as a review of the companies’ annual and sustainability reports when available.
The four sponsorship inclusion criteria were: Coca-Cola or PepsiCo sponsored the organization, where sponsorship was defined as financial contribution to an organization or any of its activities; the organization was domestic or involved with health work in the U.S.; sponsorship must have occurred within the review period; and sponsorship by a subsidiary was acceptable.
The researchers also used Google and LexisNexis to run systematic searches for articles regarding lobbying on public health legislation. Based on the search terms “Coca-Cola,” “Pepsi,” or “American Beverage Association,” along with “lobbying,” “legislation,” “bill,” and “soda tax,” Aaron and Siegel included all articles that matched the following criteria: any lobbying or actions related to public health legislation from 2011 to 2015; lobbying that supported public health; and federal, state, or local legislation.
The results showed that the two soda companies sponsored a total of 96 national health organizations: 63 public health organizations, 19 medical organizations, seven health foundations, five government organizations, and two food supply groups.
The breakdown showed that one organization accepted money from just PepsiCo (1%), 83 accepted money from the Coca-Cola Company only (86%), and 12 organizations accepted money from both companies (13%). The team noted that while Coca-Cola sponsored 99% of these health organizations, PepsiCo showed financial support for just 14%.
Aaron said he believes that while soda companies may attempt to appear beneficent in their sponsorship, their true intent is evident from their lobbying efforts: Between 2011 and 2014, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo spent a respective average of $6 million and $3 million on lobbying.
“Many have argued that soda companies are trying to reverse harm done by their products through sponsoring health programs,” he said. “However, the paper shows that the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo lobby against public health extensively — thus showing, by their actions, what their true intent is … increasing profit over helping public health changes the way the public should look at these sponsorships. They really serve a marketing role.”
He called the biggest limitation of the study the fact that it is actually a major understatement of the problem: “We only catalogued national organizations, but there are hundreds or even thousands of local and state organizations as well that accept money from these soda companies. It is quite a pervasive practice.”
Lustig, too, said he was troubled by the pervasiveness of the practice: “Given that the industry attempts to cover up their sponsorships — witness the Global Energy Balance Network debacle last year — perhaps there are more organizations on the list than are included here.”
However, the report did offer some promising news, which is that organizations have started to reconsider their sponsorships. For example, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatrics, as well as several other organizations, chose not to renew contracts with Coca-Cola at the end of 2015.
“I think that over time these sponsorships will come to be viewed in a negative light even though they have been more tolerated in the past,” said Aaron
The study was funded by the Babur K. Zhalique Scholarship in Non-Traditional Medicine.
The authors declared having no relevant financial interests.