Corporate Sponsorship of Obesity Research and Gatherings

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A few years ago, Coca-Cola made a six-figure payment to the American Academy of Family Physicians to underwrite “consumer education content related to beverages and sweeteners.” Some doctors protested and quit the organization.

Julie Deardorff defines other corporate activities that rub health advocates the wrong way:

PepsiCo has funded a nutritional science fellowship at the Yale School of Medicine; Coca-Cola has sponsored a number of public health programs at the University of North Carolina’s Gillings School of Global Public Health…. The Coca-Cola Beverage Institute for Health and Wellness sponsors continuing professional education for registered dietitians, nurses and other professionals.

A contributor to Active Low-Carber Forums says that suspicion of the food industry goes back at least as far as 1998. The World Health Organization and the Food and Agriculture Organisation called a meeting of “key nutritional scientists.” Their task would be to examine the role of carbohydrates in the human diet. The consultants did not find any reason to suggest a limit for the consumption of sugar. The forum says:

[I]t later emerged that it had been partly funded by Ilsi, the industry research group, and the World Sugar Research Organisation (WSRO), a sugar industry body.

Jim Mann, one of the experts at the meeting, said: ‘When we arrived [we were] told very clearly that it would be inappropriate to say anything bad about sugar.’

Also according to this source, a widely published exercise expert, Dr. Steve Blair, is not shy about admitting that his research is funded by millions of Coca-Cola dollars. In his world, caloric intake is not the least bit connected with obesity, and neither is excess sugar.

Marion Nestle wrote about the 2012 Focus on Obesity conference. Held in the nation’s capital, it was an element of the Black, Fit & Healthy initiative. Nestle lists the sponsors: HBO (on account of an obesity documentary it was producing), the Office of Minority Health, and — surprise! — the American Beverage Association. She says:

As documented by the Rudd Center at Yale, ABA members devote special efforts to marketing their products to Black Americans. Advertising Age notes that the soft drink industry makes no apologies for targeting minorities and considers it ‘smart marketing.’

The Rudd Center also compiled a stunning array of statistics that definitely seem to indicate a trend toward demographic targeting. So how could beverage manufacturers sponsor an event that purports to solve health problems they were instrumental in causing? Could it just be a cynical public relations ploy? Nestle noted that the Washington Post coverage of the conference was surrounded by ads bought by the ABA. She also mentioned that several of the speakers had some kind of relationship with Coca-Cola, including former employment.

For some reason, the soft drink industry has become very generous toward organizations and elected officials who support anti-obesity programs. Since 1982, Coca-Cola has donated $2.1 million to the NAACP. Stretched out over more than 30 years, that isn’t a huge number as donations go, but still — who wants to think that an august civil rights organization might take bribes to soft-pedal any objections its members might have to the targeting of black citizens with advertising for particularly harmful products?

Michael Nutter, who was mayor of Philadelphia at the time, rejected the ABA’s $10 million offer to make Coke the city’s official soft drink — an offer that had already been accepted by Miami Beach and two other cities. Uneasy about the whole involvement of the beverage industry in anti-obesity activities, Nutter seems to view the relationship as similar to putting Dracula in charge of the blood bank. He is quoted as saying,

‘It seems to me that accepting money from the beverage industry to fight obesity would be like taking money from the NRA to fight gun violence or from the tobacco industry for smoking cessations, I mean, it’s ludicrous.’

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “Family Doctors Sign Educational Deal With Coca-Cola,” NPR.org, 10/15/09
Source: “Critics pounce on Coke, Pepsi health initiatives,” ChicagoTribune.com, 02/04/12
Source: “Active Low-Carber Forums,” LowCarber.org, 01/20/14
Source: “American Beverage Association sponsors conference on obesity in minorities?” FoodPolitics.com, 07/13/12
Source: “Big Soda Knocks Harvard Report Linking ‘Sugary Drinks’ to 180,000 Deaths a Year,” AlterNet.org, 03/20/13
Image by Dennis Jarvis

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