Medical Professional Societies and Conflict-Cola, Part 4

Soda Wall

Should anti-obesity organizations accept funding from giant food corporations? We have been looking at the complex issues, emotions, and moral implications that surround this particular debate. It’s all about conflict of interest. We mentioned Dr. Michael Siegel, who exposes what appear to be manipulative and exploitative “partnerships” between food corporations and such medical professional societies as the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP), the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and the American Diatetic Association (ADA).

There have been rumblings of discontent, and there are reasons why these relationships need to be more closely examined, at the very least, for their relevance to childhood obesity, and possibly phased out. After the AAFP took money from Coca-Cola, some members ripped up their membership cards.

Take this story by public health lawyer Michele Simon, “Mimicking Big Tobacco, Big Soda blows smoke in Philadelphia.” The similarity between the tactics of the tobacco industry and the food industry has been commented on by Dr. Pretlow and many others. Simon writes:

The most recent example should become the poster child for how the most egregious tactics of tobacco companies are alive and well. Last month came the announcement that the American Beverage Association (the lobbying arm of soft drink companies) was donating $10 million to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia.

Well, why not? Because it looks bad, that’s why. It seems that a tax on sugar-sweetened drinks (SSDs) had been proposed, which somehow got lost in the shuffle, and the American Beverage Association’s money had something to do with it, as Simon explains, with the comment,

At least industry followed through on its bribe.

Simon also speaks of how astroturf groups are created and used by the corporate powers:

So here’s the game plan: create a front group — the Foundation for a Healthy America (how touching) — and funnel corporate money into it. Out the other ends comes tax-deductible grants to anybody who gets in industry’s way. There’s a name for this: it’s called buying silence.

Simon’s take on the $10 million Children’s Hospital donation is,

… [I]t’s a drop in the bucket for the soft drink industry, a small cost of doing business and a worthy investment. Especially because the proposed beverage tax was projected to bring in $77 million in just one year, with $20 million specifically allocated to obesity prevention programs. And with no strings attached. Somehow I doubt we will see any research coming out of Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia that could ruffle the feathers of the beverage lobby.

The situation is a perfect example of why corporate donations may pose a real danger. In Philadelphia, some of the Children’s Hospital doctors had testified about the dangers of SSDs. Not long afterward, the soda pop industry donated $10 million to the hospital. To suspicious minds, it could look like the industry is trying to buy the doctors’ good opinion, or at least to change their declared opinion. Suddenly, the research might start to show that SSDs are not so bad after all.

But what if the doctors had instead testified that soda pop is good? Then, the $10 million donation could be read as a payment for services already rendered. To people whose minds run that way, it might look as if the corporate donors ordered some testimony from the menu, paid for it, and got it.

Either way, it looks tricky to somebody’s eyes. Then there is a third hypothesis: that corporate donations have nothing to do with what is said or published by anybody’s researchers. The contributions are purely altruistic, and are equally bestowed on institutions that say “soda pop good” and “soda pop bad.”

Despite signs of resistance, the alliance between food corporations and medical professional societies rolls merrily along. In the September issue of AAP News, the American Academy of Pediatrics published information about the grants and contributions it receives. To see the Honor Roll of Giving, you need a subscription, but rest assured, several major food corporations are on the list.

Dr. Pretlow says,

There would appear to be an AAP conflict of interest here. Coca Cola and Unilever (Ben & Jerry’s, Good Humor, Breyer’s, Klondike Bar) are two of the top AAP contributors. Yet, these companies (as well as others on the honor role) are also major contributors to the childhood obesity epidemic, which is one of the AAP’s top health priorities.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Mimicking Big Tobacco, Big Soda blows smoke in Philadelphia,” Grist.org, 04/04/11
Image by KB35 (Kevin), used under its Creative Commons license.

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