Family Doctor Group Squanders Credibility by Taking Tainted Coke Cash

Coke "Philanthropy" Buys Friends, Silences Critics, and Advances Anti-Health Extremism, According to CSPI


WASHINGTON—The American Academy of Family Physicians, which claims its mission is "to improve the health of patients, families and communities," is coming under fire for a controversial new partnership with Coca-Cola, the world's leading producer of obesity-promoting soft drinks. The six-figure payment from Coke will fund "consumer education content related to beverages and sweeteners" on the group’s web site.

Today a number of leading physicians, nutritionists, and health experts are calling on the AAFP to return the money. The Center for Science in the Public Interest says that the AAFP should be urging patients and consumers to avoid sweetened soft drinks—which promote obesity, diabetes, tooth decay, and other health problems—and not helping Coca-Cola advance its anti-health agenda in Washington.

"Because of the kinds of products it markets, Coca-Cola Co. is desperate to burnish its soiled reputation ... which is why it is paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to have a relationship with your organization," the health advocates wrote in a letter to AAFP leaders. "The AAFP web site should be criticizing beverages sweetened with sugars in the strongest language … But with Coca-Cola providing funding, the AAFP simply cannot do that."

Besides paying for web content about soft drinks, the incoming president of the AAFP said that the money will help the group engage in federal advocacy efforts on health care reform. Presumably, says CSPI, the AAFP’s lobbying efforts won't depart sharply from those of its generous new benefactor, which is spending a lot of time and money trying to convince legislators not to include taxes on soda to help pay for health care reform.

This is hardly the first time that Coca-Cola has used its grant-making power to win new friends among health professionals. In 2003, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentists took a $1 million payment from Coca-Cola. Before the payment, the dentists' group acknowledged the connection between sugary drinks and dental disease. But after the payment, the president of the AAPD told reporters that the "scientific evidence is certainly not clear" on the role soft drinks play.

"Coke wields its 'philanthropy' with all the subtlety of a baseball bat," said CSPI executive director Michael F. Jacobson. "In some cases, it can buy useful friends; in other cases, it might be purchasing the silence of a potential critic. Elsewhere, it funds anonymous front groups to do real p.r. dirty work, as when it pays the Center for Consumer Freedom to deny that obesity is a problem."

Besides Jacobson, other signatories on the letter to AAFP include Henry Blackburn of the University of Minnesota, George A. Bray of the Louisiana State University, Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, Joan Gussow of Columbia University, Lisa R. Young of New York University, and Carlos A. Camargo, Jr., Meir Stampfer, Walter Willett, and Grace Wyshak of the Harvard School of Public Health.

In September, a soda industry lobby group ran print and television advertisements under the rubric of "Americans Against Food Taxes," urging Congress not to adopt a soda tax. The ad lists some predictable supporters, like the Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, and the right-wing Institute for Liberty, which promoted the "tea party" protests that became notorious for their inflammatory, and sometimes racist, rhetoric and signage.

But the ad listed some surprising supporters, including a number of Latino organizations, ranging from obscure (the Hispanic Alliance for Prosperity) to the well known (the League of United Latin American Citizens). The ad also listed a number of unlikely groups that don’t ordinarily get involved in issues of taxation or health care reform, like the National Hispanic Foundation for the Arts and the Hispanic Association of Colleges and Universities. Those seemingly improbable signatories to the soda industry's ad list Coca-Cola and/or PepsiCo as donors on their web sites.

"The stakes are so high in the health care debate, yet I fear that these groups, some of which are well respected, are selling out at such bargain-basement prices," Jacobson said. "Low-income people, Latinos, and African Americans disproportionately suffer from obesity, diabetes, and diet-related disease and have the most to gain from health care reform. I hope that the leadership of these organizations, as well as the AAFP, comes to realize that Coke isn't advancing their interests. Coke just wants to sell more liquid candy."

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