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New Study Highlights Coke and Pepsi’s Uncomfortable Links to Health Organizations

In five years, the two soda companies sponsored at least 96 health and medical groups

These cans are more influential than you might have guessed. (Liam - Flickr/Creative Commons)
smithsonian.com

It’s fizzy, sweet and tasty—but for most people, the idea of a can of soda is anything but healthy. So it might come as a surprise that some of the nation’s biggest health and medical groups, including ones devoted to the prevention of obesity and diabetes, are directly sponsored by the soda industry. As Kelly Lauerman reports for The Washington Post, a new study has revealed the surprising extent of the soda industry’s influence on health groups—and the picture it paints is anything but refreshing.

In an article in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers describe their assessment of records of philanthropic donations and lobbying expenditures on public health legislation by soda companies from 2011 to 2015. During that period, they found that the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo sponsored a total of 96 national health organizations. These groups span the gamut from government institutions like the Centers for Disease Control to Girl Scouts USA, the U.S. Soccer Foundation, the National Dental Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. Sixty-three of the groups were public health organizations, and 19 were medical organizations. The remaining groups were a mix between food supply, health foundations and government organizations.

Researchers also tracked the lobbying efforts of both companies, which fought against things like soda taxes and health warnings on sugar-sweetened beverages. Both groups lobbied against a total of 29 public health bills during the five-year study period—in 97 percent of cases, fighting against public health interventions. Though the majority of the groups and lobbying attempts were sponsored by Coca-Cola, the researchers note that PepsiCo’s sponsorship records were less available.

“By accepting funding from these companies,” the authors write, “health organizations are inadvertently participating in their marketing plans.” They tell Lauerman that they were surprised by the extent of the soda industry’s funding. In the study, they compare the ties between health organizations and the soda industry to those forged by the tobacco and alcohol industries and recommend that health groups forego the soda industry’s money in favor of less biased dollars.

That advice could be hard to swallow, especially for non-profit groups that rely on corporate sponsorships to survive. The American Heart Association, which received tens of thousands of dollars from Coca-Cola during the study period, told Lauerman that they “must engage a wide variety of food and beverage companies to be part of the solution” in reducing sugary drink consumption, and maintains that the money does not influence their science or public policy positions.

The involvement of the soda industry in sponsoring health group might not come as a surprise: Earlier this year, researchers showed that the sugar industry long used its money to buy research that pointed the finger at saturated fat for heart disease, and in 2015 the sugar lobby was connected to research about dental health in the 1970s. But the extent of the soda industry’s involvement with groups devoted to researching and fighting obesity and diabetes is startling. After all, researchers only looked at a five-year period—and admit that their numbers likely underreport the industry’s funding. And they used publicly available information—such as that listed on Coca-Cola’s own website—to do their search.

It may take decades to understand just how industry has influenced health research and policy in the United States. For now, the study raises questions about how much health advice was developed in response to companies’ money and influence—a dilemma that may make your next can of soda taste a bit flat.

Editor's Note October 11, 2016: This article has been corrected to show that the National Dental Association and not the American Dental Association is among the recipients of money from the soda companies.

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