Coca-Cola and Pepsi, the two major US soda giants, have given millions of US dollars to health organizations while quietly fighting anti-obesity measures such as taxes on soft drinks, a new study shows.
Coca-Cola Co and PepsiCo, from 2011 to last year, sponsored 96 US health organizations battling public health problems such as obesity, diabetes and heart disease, the research published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine said.
During the same period, the two soda companies lobbied against 29 public health bills intended to reduce soda consumption or improve nutrition.
“These companies lobbied against public health intervention in 97 percent of cases, calling into question a sincere commitment to improving the public’s health,” study authors Daniel Aaron and Michael Siegel of Boston University said.
“By accepting funding from these companies, health organizations are inadvertently participating in their marketing plans,” they said.
Most of the recipients of the companies’ largesse were private organizations, while some were part of the US federal government, such as the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
The donations have become larger in recent years, alongside mounting public health campaigns linking soft drinks to the US’ rising obesity levels — related to a growing prevalence of diabetes.
Coca-Cola recently revealed it had spent more than US$120 million since 2010, financing scientific studies, partnerships with groups fighting obesity and lobbying.
According to The Center for Responsive Politics — an independent, nonprofit organization — PepsiCo on average has spent US$3 million a year on lobbying since 2011.
By supporting health organizations, the companies are trying to improve their goodwill image with the public to distract from their lobbying efforts.
“By being able to say they partner with so many health organizations, they are able to create this image that they are actually contributing to public health,” Siegel said in a telephone interview.
That diverts attention away from the fact that “their products are contributing to what is a terrible obesity epidemic,” he said.
About 35 percent of American adults are obese and 69 percent are overweight, according to 2012 official data.
Spending on treatments linked to obesity accounted for one-fifth of the US’ healthcare spending.
For Keith-Thomas Ayoob, a dietician and professor at Yeshiva University, the source of the funding is not as important as what is done with it.
“I think there is a place for proper funding from industries,” he said.
“I am only concerned that the fundings go toward the efforts that benefit consumers,” he said, giving as an example helping people better manage diabetes.
Coca-Cola and PepsiCo engage in intense lobbying to kill any legislation against soft drinks, the study says, putting the sponsored health organizations in a position of conflict of interest.
That is the case of Save the Children, to which Coca-Cola and PepsiCo gave more than US$5 million in 2009. A year later, the nonprofit withdrew its support of a tax for soft drinks, a measure backed by the WHO to fight obesity and diabetes.
Contacted by reporters, the organization refused to say whether it was still taking money from both companies.
The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (AND) and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) opposed a proposal by former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg to reduce the size of soda cans in 2012 after they received money from the two companies.
The AND, which broke off its ties to the two, said it had accepted the money “to enable the academy to reach a wider consumer audience with healthy eating messages.”
The NAACP did not respond to requests for comment.
Rhona Applebaum, Coca-Cola’s chief science and health officer, was forced out late last year after reports that she helped set up the nonprofit the Global Energy Balance Network, which downplayed the role of sugary drinks in obesity and emphasized exercise.
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