We left off noting that relationships between government agencies and industry groups that step in to offer them funding may not always deserve the suspicion heaped upon them. After all, cooperation is good, and letting Big Soda pay some of the bills is not necessarily evil. Unfortunately, and especially in times of scarce government funding, accepting financial help from the private sector is sometimes the only way to get anything done.
While watchdog groups that scrutinize these relationships are justified in wanting to keep a vigilant eye on things, it may be that the public should just stop being so paranoid and simply say “Thank you.” But it is difficult to relax. Past experience tells us that when corporations offer financial aid, they may have shady motives, and the intent to exert improper and harmful influence on the political side.
Writing for The New York Times, Sheila Kaplan says:
The growth of public-private partnerships, as they have come to be called, in the health field has raised ethics alarms among those who believe many corporate gifts are designed to help donors as much as recipients, by enhancing their reputations or promoting their legislative agendas.
It is easy to see how corporations actually have a stake in encouraging the government to do less and less. When agencies lose their funding the industry benefits, because if the government will not fund research, guess who will? The friendly soda pop pushers. So, why not help that process along?
If, for instance, a MegaFizz executive happens to be playing golf with a government official, why not drop a hint that the government need not worry about funding a proposed anti-obesity program? MegaFizz picks up the tab, and next thing you know, scientists-for-hire are cranking out fallacious journal articles proving that kids are fat because the planet Mercury is in retrograde orbit.
On a national level
The Times journalist zeroes in on an example of the suspicious-looking behavior that has caused critics to narrow their eyes and get their backs up. In 2010 through 2012, the Coca-Cola Company gave the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) more than a million dollars. When that money ran out, former director Dr. Thomas R. Frieden said, “I don’t think it’s justifiable to have Coca-Cola run an obesity campaign that had an exclusive focus on physical activity.”
But Dr. Frieden said that after he ended the Coke-funded C.D.C. health initiative, he approached the soft drink company with other programs in need of funds. He met with Dr. Applebaum and Muhtar Kent, the chief executive of Coke, but was unable to persuade the company to donate… They talked about transportation safety and water programs, Dr. Frieden said, but “nothing ever came out of those ideas.”
Coke’s willingness to subsidize research or programs appears to extend only to obesity. In other words, Coke money comes with strings attached, and to critics of public-private partnerships, that looks like the proverbial smoking gun. It looks like the corporation’s goals are at cross-purposes with the CDC’s goals, which could potentially undermine the government agency’s integrity.
During Dr. Brenda Fitzgerald’s tenure as Public Health Commissioner in Georgia, that department’s relationship with the Coca-Cola Company was regarded by some as improperly close. When she was appointed head of the CDC earlier this month, the health bureaucracy had been relatively free from corporate influence for a few years. But Dr. Fitzgerald has indicated willingness to bring Coke money back to the CDC, and consequently will now be closely watched.
Your responses and feedback are welcome!