The Not-So-Sweet Relief: How The Soda Industry Is Influencing Medical Organizations

Richard Bruno, MD and Kevin Burns, MD
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UCS | October 15, 2014, 4:44 pm EDT
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With increasing scrutiny over the dire health consequences of sugar-sweetened beverages, soda manufacturers have turned to obscuring the science, confusing the consumer, and sponsoring medical organizations whose recommendations influence both providers and patients. Unfortunately these corporate partnerships are conflicts of interest that undermine the credibility of the organizations and stymie reform.

AAFP's webpage about diabetes is partially underwritten by The Coca-Cola Company.

AAFP’s webpage about diabetes is partially underwritten by The Coca-Cola Company.

Most notably, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) has had a corporate partnership with The Coca-Cola Company (TCCC) since 2009, which has resulted in educational materials and underwriting of their patient information website A striking example of how the partnership undermines the family physician’s credibility occurs on the page for “Diabetes,” which recommends a healthy diet, while nestled neatly next to an advertisement for Coca-Cola (see screen capture on the left) and a footnote acknowledging TCCC as “partial underwriter” for the page.

In a 2010 Annals of Family Medicine article, family medicine physician and medical ethicist Howard Brody clearly outlines the danger that conflicts of interest present to professional medical organizations. The problem goes beyond what happens “when one enters into arrangements that reasonably tempt one to put aside one’s primary obligations in favor of secondary interests, such as financial self-interest,” with a deeper concern for the “development of a corporate culture within a medical professional society,” that can lose focus on “its duty to the public health and public trust.” As the partnership grows, there will be a point where the AAFP cannot afford to end the partnership. The AMA learned a difficult and costly lesson when they signed a contract with Sunbeam back in 1998.

Unfortunately, this trend is becoming more and more common among medical organizations, as documented by the Center for Science in the Public Interest’s 2013 report Selfish Giving, which lists over ten medical organizations with soda industry sponsorship. The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) is on the list—an accolade that irked New York pediatrician Arnold Matlin MD so much that he crafted and got a resolution passed through the New York chapter this year calling for an end to corporate sponsorships of this kind. Dr Matlin laments that his organization takes money from the very company that profits from, “products that we know are bad for the health of children.” His resolution will be debated among the AAP membership next March at their headquarters in Illinois.

Another example of industry influence occurs at the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) conferences, with sessions regularly sponsored by TCCC and McDonald’s. A group of outraged members of the AND call themselves Dietitians for Professional Integrity, and have organized resistance to sponsorship by companies who promote unhealthy products.

Gifts create bias

What studies have shown about taking money and gifts from pharmaceutical companies is that, however small, they influence us. For a medical organization, the consequences are even more important, as industry funding compromises the organization’s goals and messaging.

Image courtesy of Center for Science in the Public Interest

Image courtesy of Center for Science in the Public Interest

Whereas tobacco industry funding of medical organizations was once commonplace (as were medical institution investments in tobacco companies), soda companies have forged and maintained partnerships by seeding doubt in the public’s mind about the health consequences from over-consumption. The Union of Concerned Scientists’ Center for Science and Democracy’s publication “Sugar-Coating Science” details these deceptive practices and recommends combating industry claims with rigorous data and regulations.

Rejecting unhealthy corporate influence

We as family physicians have been combating these conflicts of interest for years. We are currently building a consortium of data and advocacy groups to speak out. Under the name Physicians Against Unhealthy Corporate Influence (PAUCI), we are encouraging physicians and other healthcare providers to distance themselves from industry influence, so a “new social norm may emerge that promotes patient care and scientific integrity.” Our group aims to be a hub for scientific and medical professionals to advance the work of reducing corporate conflicts of interest.

We call on the scientists and experts in the field to help contribute to advancing this goal. Please consider signing our petition to the AAFP Board of Directors, liking our Facebook page, joining our LinkedIn group, helping fund our exhibit booth at the AAFP Scientific Assembly, and passing this article on to those who may be willing to speak up in their medical organizations to end these types of corporate partnerships. We have made significant headway with resolutions passed through the AAFP student and resident congress of delegates, as well as the Maryland Academy of Family Physicians, calling for the end of the AAFP-Coca Cola alliance.  If you will be attending the upcoming AAFP Scientific Assembly in Washington, DC, October 23-25, please visit the PAUCI booth #1863 in the exhibit hall.

We believe that the integrity of these organizations can be regained through rejection of current conflicts of interest so that members and the public can have confidence in the vision and mission to promote the health of the public. As anti-lead activist and geophysicist Dr. Claire Patterson once warned, “It is not just a mistake for public health agencies to cooperate and collaborate with industries in investigating and deciding whether public health is endangered—it is a direct abrogation and violation of the duties and responsibilities of those public health organizations.”

We never want money and power to have a louder voice than science, and we reject sponsorship from corporations who profit from making our patients sick.


Posted in: Food and Agriculture, Science and Democracy, Scientific Integrity Tags: , , , ,

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  • Colonel Klink

    While I agree with their stance on soda/sugar (especially high fructose syrups), I do have to chuckle at their problem being with funding partnerships that are agenda driven. They are a quintessential example of a funding driven group that has some very unscientific positions on GMO’s and a far left political agenda dressed up as “science.” Again, I agree with the position of this piece, but laugh at those in glass houses throwing stones.

  • aed939

    Good article. We also should mention that CSPI is funded by a coalition of soy and vegan interests.

  • SC

    They also fund schools and thus influence curriculum. I find this to be the most dangerous, since school/education has always been society’s most powerful method of change. How are things going to change if corporations like coca-cola have influence everywhere…including our schools? What happened to independent research? People are addicted to these foods biochemically; for example sugar affects the same parts of the brain that respond to hard drugs. But oh… you don’t see anyone supporting the mass use of hard drugs. Hard drugs take effect very quickly, are very damaging, and most of all are blatantly obvious. Compounds such as sugar, artificial chemicals, and preservatives are even more tricky – because they have side effects that take longer to show up. (Sugar is alright in smaller doses, but society in general has gotten used to using insane amounts of sugar, thus promoting heart disease, diabetes and obesity). Independent research is completely at stake, as most research funding comes from grants. Ha.. Monsanto finding researchers to test food safety, what a joke. A very dangerous one.

  • Casey

    Thank you for taking this action. Parents like me are fighting an uphill battle when it comes to soda and fast food companies marketing to children. We need our doctors and health care professionals supporting our efforts 100% instead of giving the appearance of spilt loyalties when their organizations take sponsorship money from corporations like Coca-Cola and McDonalds. These companies are making more kids sick and it’s time for doctors and RDs to stop helping them.

    • SC

      You are absolutely right. Thank you!

    • drmthra

      The only part I disagree with is “We need our doctors…”. The longer I live, ironically, the less I seem to have need of (or have faith in) their services.

  • Richard Solomon

    The same conflict of interest can be found in psychiatry where physicians receive funding for research, free meals, and other ‘gifts’ from pharma companies with a vested interest in promoting their own products. While these MD’s will dispute that this affects their decision making when it comes to treatment, in my years of practice as a non-medical mental health care professional I found that hard to believe. I wonder where the American Psychiatric Association stands on this issue?

    • SC

      Yeah… I’ve thought about this one too. An even more indirect conflict can be found where pharma actually funds the school itself.

      This definitely does have a major impact on their choices, as it they are no longer completely independent in thought and choice.

      Although some pills may help people, I am unsure about the mass amounts that are being used. It’s quite a lot of pills, and a ridiculous sum of money.

      What’s to be done?