Coca-Cola and PepsiCo provided funding to 96 health organizations from 2011 through 2015 at the same time that they were lobbying against 29 pieces of health-related legislation that could have reduced consumption of sugar-laden sodas or improved nutrition, according to research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine. The study found fault with both the givers and the takers.
“These companies lobbied against public health intervention in 97% of cases, calling into question a sincere commitment to improving the public’s health,” according to authors Daniel G. Aaron, B.S. and Michael B. Siegel, M.D., M.P.H.
The authors “argue that by sponsoring health groups, soda companies develop positive cultural associations with their brands and can neutralize critical legislation. Sponsorship is considered a marketing tool by the Federal Trade Commission,” reports Alexandra Sifferlin for Time.
“Rather than supporting public health, organizations may become unwitting partners that contribute to corporate marketing strategy,” the authors write.
“The study spotlighted the health and medical groups that are backed by soda companies, likening the practice to the ways tobacco companies confronted concerns about cigarettes,” writes Jennifer Kaplan for Bloomberg. “The organizations that were funded by both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo included Feeding America, Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, American Society for Nutrition and Healthy Weight Commitment Foundation, according to the study.”
“We wanted to look at what these companies really stand for,” co-author Aaron, a student at Boston University’s medical school, tells the New York Times’ Anahad O’Connor. “And it looks like they are not helping public health at all — in fact they’re opposing it almost across the board, which calls these sponsorships into question.”
At the same time, “the report found a number of instances in which influential health groups accepted beverage industry donations and then backed away from supporting soda taxes or remained noticeably silent about the initiatives,” O’Connor writes, including Save the Children. It stopped supporting soda tax campaigns in 2010 after getting a $5 million grant from Pepsi and seeking another one from Coke, according to the study.
The organization claims in a statement that it had decided to focus on early childhood education, and that its decision to stop supporting soda taxes “was unrelated to any corporate support that Save the Children received,” O’Connor reports.
Coca-Cola Co.’s chief sustainability officer, Bea Perez, has been a member of the Save the Children board of trustees since March 2014 and serves on its marketing and communications committee.
“In response to the paper, the American Beverage Association issued a written statement on behalf of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, noting that ‘beverage companies have a long tradition of supporting community organizations across the country. As this report points out, some of these organizations focus on strengthening public health, which we are proud to support,’” Jacqueline Howard reports for CNN.
But some “public-health experts say Pepsi and Coke's strategy harks back to the days of Big Tobacco,” writesBusiness Insider’s Erin Brodwin.
“First, they attack the science. Then, they fund community groups, promote exercise as a solution, and say they're self-regulated and don't need to be regulated by an outside source,” Marion Nestle, New York University professor of public health and nutrition and author of Food Politics, tells Brodwin.
“Aaron and Siegel found that 83 organizations accepted money from Coca-Cola, one accepted money from PepsiCo and 12 accepted money from both companies,” Tim Casey writes in Cardiovascular Business. “Of the 96 organizations, there were 63 public health organizations, 19 medical organizations, seven health foundations, five government organizations and two food supply groups.”
The researchers also note that 35% of adults in the U.S. were obese and 69% were overweight or obese in 2012 while pointing out that that approximately half of Americans drink sugary drinks on a daily basis. Soda consumption caused 20% of the weight gain in the U.S. between 1977 and 2007, they claim.
“Some groups named in the report, including the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have already severed ties with the sweet drink industry,” Maggie Fox reports for NBC News.
“The American Heart Association denies it's been influenced by such donations…,” Fox writes, while also reminding us that last month “a different team of researchers found that sugar lobbyists funded research that underplayed the role of sugar in heart disease.”
“In August of last year, Coca-Cola CEO Muhtar Kent published an op-ed in the Wall Street Journal saying the company’s current approach to working with the public health and scientific communities was not working, and that he was disappointed their funding actions had created confusion and mistrust,” Alasdair Wilkins writes for Vocative.
And media coverage of academic studies, no doubt.