Medical Professional Societies and Conflict-Cola, Part 5

Weight problem

We have been discussing the Coca-Cola Company, famous for product placement, a sneaky way of advertising without seeming to, or without technically breaking any agreement the company might make to not advertise. Showing a corporation’s products in movies and other entertainment media is a kind of subliminal advertising, a mind-infiltrating technique that is accused of contributing greatly to the childhood obesity epidemic.

It turns out that Coca-Cola is one of the biggest financial supporters of the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP), and we looked at that apparent conflict of interest in Part 4. This kind of thing is called a conflict of interest, precisely because it has more than one side. A person could say it’s a disgrace, and the AAP ought to be ashamed of itself for taking money from the corporation. Or, someone could say, “Of course a big food corporation should help to fund the research and education, and end an epidemic they help to create.” Expecting that they would actually do that is perhaps a bit naïve. But it could be said.

A person might also say that, if the corporation were truly concerned about childhood obesity, it would simply stop producing ersatz foods whose value ranges from slight to zero, and whose dangers become more apparent every day.

Of course, the makers of soda pop are not the only contributors whose motives are questionable. Many examples could be quoted, and some of them were mentioned in a USA TODAY article:

The American Academy of Pediatrics received similar criticism seven years ago when it allowed an infant formula maker’s logo to appear on copies of that group’s breast-feeding guide. And the American Medical Association faced harsh reaction more than a decade ago with a plan to endorse Sunbeam appliances without testing them. Criticism forced the AMA to abandon that deal… In 2005 [the AAFP] received funding from McDonalds for a fitness program.

Is it possible that organizations and institutions could allow themselves to be supported by food corporations and not let that have any influence on their findings or pronouncements? The professionals connected with these organizations and institutions are the expert witnesses when it comes to making decisions about dangerous food. Sometimes there is more to it than writing an affidavit. Like a blood spatter expert or any other expert witness, researchers sometimes end up in courtrooms. Sometimes the blood spatter expert testifies for the prosecution, and sometimes for the defense.

If a food company is doing a study, who else would we expect them to consult, if not the professional medical personnel, professional statisticians, etc.? Is there any other way to get the “expert witnessing” job done? Where is the money supposed to come from, to fund educational or academic efforts? Is it wrong for a doctor to be a paid consultant? Is it possible to work for a food company and maintain professional integrity?

Where does the distinction lie, where is the line to be drawn? Dr. Pretlow says,

I personally feel that all current or previous financial ties with the food industry render an obesity researcher’s scientific findings suspect. Put simply, if someone pays you, it’s impossible to be objective.

On the other hand, there are professional colleagues he has a great deal of respect for, even though they have been in a consultant capacity for one or more food companies. Research does need to be funded somehow. And the situation is not as bad as it might be. Dr. Pretlow says,

In preparing my ‘Childhood Obesity Conflicts of Interest’ post for our blog, I investigated ties with the food industry of all the members of the editorial board of the journal, Childhood Obesity. I was surprised that there weren’t that many,

The picture has nothing to do with medical professional societies, but is a tribute to a comment made by reader Jacqueline, who responded to Part 3:

I think this is an important discussion to have. What do you do, for example, with a company like Nestle that makes ice cream, candy, and pizza — but also owns Optifast and Jenny Craig?

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Coke costs American Academy of Family Physicians some members,” USA TODAY, 11/04/09
Image by wotthe7734, used under its Creative Commons license.

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