Paper reveals soda's controversial relationship with health groups

Story highlights

  • Two soda companies sponsored at least 96 national health groups in recent years
  • The sponsorships occurred while companies lobbied against soda taxes

(CNN)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.

The Coca-Cola Co. and PepsiCo recently sponsored at least 96 national health organizations at the same time the companies were lobbying against public health bills intended to reduce how many sugary sodas people drink, according to the paper published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine on Monday.
    The sponsorships could have influenced the health organizations' support of various public health measures intended to reduce obesity by limiting soda consumption, said co-author Dr. Michael Siegel, professor of community health sciences in the Boston University School of Public Health.
    "We were surprised to see that many of these health groups taking Big Soda money were silent on public policies to reduce soda consumption, such as soda taxes," Siegel said.
    "Clearly, the soda companies are using sponsorship of medical and health organizations to promote their public image, mute the support of these organizations for policies like soda taxes that would decrease soda consumption, and in the long run, to increase soda consumption," he said. "Sponsorship is a well-recognized marketing strategy whose primary function is to increase the bottom line: improve company image and increase product sales."
    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."

    Soda and health

    Siegel and Daniel Aaron, a medical student at the Boston University School of Medicine, conducted Internet and database searches for public records indicating the sponsorships of public health groups and lobbying expenditures of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo from 2011 to 2015.
    "We examined Coca-Cola and PepsiCo because they are the top two soda companies in the United States. We wanted to explore their sponsorships in detail, so we didn't explore the smaller companies," Siegel said.
    The researchers discovered that the two companies sponsored numerous national health organizations, some of which had a specific mission to reduce obesity or promote healthy nutrition and research, such as the American Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation.
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    Due to the amount of sugar they contain, soda beverages have been associated with an increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease and possibly heart failure.
    However, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation said in a written statement that the sponsorships received were for individual, local fundraising activities and initiatives -- and noted that the foundation itself supports research for type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease.
    "It is a common misconception that type 1 diabetes is caused by diet or lifestyle choices," the statement said.
    The American Diabetes Association did not reply to a request for comment.
    Additionally, the new paper suggests that the sponsorships occurred while the soda companies lobbied against 29 public health bills. Twelve of the bills were soda taxes, four involved regulations on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, three were regulations on advertising, one involved a soda portion limit for New York, and one proposed health warning labeling on sugary drinks.
    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.
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    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.
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    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."