Medical Professional Societies and Conflict-Cola, Part 1

Vintage sodas 4

How ironic. They took the cocaine out of Coca-Cola more than a hundred years ago, and it still turned out to be one of the most harmful substances ever invented. One of the ways in which it has been harmful is in causing dissent and conflict among health professionals, as the organizations they belong to deal with the question of how close a relationship to have with the giant corporation.

Different people have different ideas of what is appropriate, and conscientious doctors are particularly concerned over conflicts of interest and even “apparent” conflicts of interest. Let’s go back a couple of years to pick up the thread of this controversy.

Near the end of 2009, an Associated Press article reported that the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) was in trouble for accepting Coca-Cola funding. The article says,

The deal will fund educational materials about soft drinks for the academy’s consumer health and wellness website, FamilyDoctor.org.

And, of course, AAFP head Dr. Douglas Henly told reporters that Coca-Cola would have no say about the website’s content. Surely, no influence would be exerted upon the AAFP to go easy on sugary drinks or artificial sweeteners. Another authority quoted here was Dr. Walter Willett of Harvard University, who begged to differ. His statement to the press said that the AAFP…

… should be a loud critic of these products and practices, but by signing with Coke their voice has almost surely been muzzled.

And the corporation, naturally, chimed in with assurances that it was all about informed decisions and education based on sound science. “Yeah, right,” replied scoffers, who brought up comparisons with the shameful history of nicotine advertising, which in the early days included endorsements from doctors. And a lot of AAFP members quit the organization.

The controversy continued into the spring of 2010. In NaturalNews, David Gutierrez called the AAFP’s action a “total sellout,” writing,

According to academy chief executive officer Douglas Henley, Coca-Cola’s money will help fund a Web site containing information on the connection between soft drinks and obesity, and promoting sugar-free beverages.

Then, the journal Annals of Family Medicine published an article by Howard Brody, M.D., Ph.D., of the University of Texas, who looked very thoroughly at the issue and concluded:

Most of the defenses offered by AAFP are rationalizations rather than ethical counterarguments… When a learned professional society such as AAFP encounters ethical criticisms of its actions, and in reply can offer primarily rationalizations rather than sound ethical arguments, the character of the organization is called into question. This state of affairs suggests that the damage done to the organization as a result of long-standing acceptance of commercial sponsorship runs deep…

He went on to say,

We ought to be concerned about the development of a corporate culture within a medical professional society… An organization that develops such a corporate culture may be poorly situated to address the ethical challenges raised by conflict of interest and to place its duty to the public health and public trust at a proper level of priority.

How did it turn out? We go to FamilyDoctor.org and check out the “Childhood Obesity Overview.” One frequently asked question is, “What can I do to help my overweight or obese child?” The answers include the usual: keep nutritious snacks around the house, stay away from fast food, limit screen time, get exercise. The page recommends that parents not bring unhealthy foods into the home, but it doesn’t specify. It certainly doesn’t say anything about removing soda pop from the family’s menu. What the page does say is,

This content was developed with general underwriting support from The Coca-Cola Company.

Moving right along to “Nutrition Tips for Kids…” Not a word about soda pop there, either. Sigh.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Coke costs American Academy of Family Physicians some members,” USATODAY.com, 11/04/09
Source: “Total Sellout: American Academy of Family Physicians Lets Coca-Cola Sponsor Health Advice,” NaturalNews, 03/19/10
Source: “Professional Medical Organizations and Commercial Conflicts of Interest: Ethical Issues,” Annals of Family Medicine, 2010
Source: “Childhood Obesity Overview,” FamilyDoctor.org
Image by woody1778a (Jerry “Woody”), used under its Creative Commons license.

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