Paper Reveals Soda's Controversial Relationship with Health Groups

CNN/Stylemagazine.com Newswire | 10/10/2016, 12:51 p.m.
A provocative new research paper has unmasked how many health organizations received funding from the nation's two largest soda companies ...
A provocative new research paper has unmasked how many health organizations received funding from the nation's two largest soda companies in recent years, and the findings have left researchers shocked.A provocative new research paper has unmasked how many health organizations received funding from the nation's two largest soda companies in recent years, and the findings have left researchers shocked.

Between 2011 and 2014, Coca-Cola spent an average of more than $6 million per year on lobbying, PepsiCo spent more than $3 million annually, and the American Beverage Association spent more than $1 million, according to the paper's findings.

In its statement, American Beverage Association Vice President of Policy William Dermody Jr. noted that beverage companies, including Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, are making an effort to improve public health.

"We are making a difference through the voluntary actions we are taking to reduce calories and sugar from beverage consumption -- and by working together as competitors. Through our efforts, we've engaged with prominent public health groups on how best to help people moderate their calories in what is the single-largest voluntary effort by any industry to address obesity," the statement said.

"Yes, we may disagree with some in the public health community on discriminatory and regressive taxes and policies on our products. But, we believe our actions in communities and the marketplace are contributing to addressing the complex challenge of obesity. We stand strongly for our need, and right, to partner with organizations that strengthen our communities."

Additionally, a spokesperson for PepsiCo emailed a written statement to CNN, indicating that the corporation should not be portrayed as a "soda company."

"As one of the largest food and beverage companies in the world, we provide consumers around the world with delicious, affordable, convenient and complementary foods and beverages from healthy eats to treats. We believe that obesity is a complex, multifaceted issue and that our company has an important role to play in addressing it -- which includes engaging with public health organizations and responding to consumers' demand for healthier products. Today, about 45% of our revenue comes from everyday nutrition products, such as oats, zero and low calorie beverages, and snacks with low levels of salt and saturated fats," the statement said.

'This is co-optation'

Some health organizations mentioned in the new paper, such as the American Academy of Family Physicians, have ended their partnerships with soda companies since last year.

However, the paper still sheds light on the extent of soda companies' funding of health groups, said Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, and author of the book "Soda Politics: Taking on Big Soda (and Winning)."

"Funding these groups buys their silence. ... It also allows them to pretend to care about public and community health while lobbying behind the scenes to prevent regulation and spending fortunes on fighting soda taxes and other public health measures," said Nestle, who was not involved in the paper.

"This is co-optation -- the capture of health organizations in the interest of these companies," she said. "It is very much in Coke and Pepsi's interests to have health professionals say nothing about the health benefits of drinking less soda and remaining silent on soda tax initiatives."

As the new paper focused on only two soda corporations, an accounting of how much funding has been invested by all sugary beverage companies toward health organizations may yield larger numbers, said Laura Schmidt, a professor of health policy in the School of Medicine at the University of California, San Francisco.

"We have long known that the sugary beverage industry, like the tobacco and alcohol industries, invests enormous resources in efforts to build relationships with health provider organizations, professional societies and governmental agencies. But this paper gives one of feeling for the sheer scope of this enterprise, and it is vast," Schmidt said.

Schmidt was not involved in the new paper, but she was a co-author of a historical analysis published last month that claimed that the sugar industry sponsored research to cast doubt about sugar's health risks in the 1960s and 1970s.

"These soda giants wouldn't be doling out the money if they didn't want something in return," Schmidt said of the findings in the new paper. "At a minimum, they may want to use their ties to these organizations to put a health halo around their products. At worst, they are co-opting these organizations in ways that could have them putting profits over public health."