Nearly 100 national health and medical groups — including the American Heart Association, the American Diabetes Association and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention — enjoy sponsorships by Coca-Cola Co. or PepsiCo, according to a new study by two Boston University researchers.
The report lands as the sugar industry’s supersized role in shaping — and spinning — health policy has come under increasing scrutiny. It also comes as the negative health effects of sugar and sugary drinks, including a link to rising obesity rates, are better understood.
“Now, most organizations refuse tobacco money,” write the study authors, Daniel Aaron and Michael Siegel. “Perhaps soda companies should be treated similarly.”
The authors identified 96 sponsorships, from 2011 to 2015, by Coca-Cola or PepsiCo to 96 “health organizations,” which they defined as any group or program “involved in the public’s health.” During that period, the researchers identified 29 proposed public health bills or regulations that one or both of the two companies lobbied against. All aimed to reduce soda consumption.
The American Beverage Association, which represents both Coca-Cola and PepsiCo, responded to the study with a statement saying: “America’s beverage companies are engaged in public health issues because we, too, want a strong, healthy America. We 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.”
Coca-Cola and PepsiCo did not respond to a request for comment about the study.
The American Heart Association released a statement regarding the study stating, in part, that it “is leading efforts to reduce consumption of sugary drinks.” It further states: “To achieve our goals, we must engage a wide variety of food and beverage companies to be part of the solution. As clearly evidenced by our work, under no circumstances does such occasional funding have any influence on our science and the public policy positions we advocate for.”
The Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, listed as one of the sponsored health groups, responded in a statement that the “fundraisers in question were individual local initiatives” and not national sponsorships.
The study remarked that it was particularly surprising that the ADA and JDRF were on the list, “given the established link between diabetes and soda consumption.” JDRF, in its statement, sought to clarify “that JDRF supports research for type 1 diabetes, an autoimmune disease” not caused by “diet or lifestyle choices.” (Soda consumption has been linked to Type 2 diabetes.)
The study follows a bombshell report in September that revealed how the sugar industry, nearly 50 years ago, exerted strong influence on early research about heart disease. That study, in JAMA Internal Medicine, showed how the sugar industry funded research by Harvard scientists that claimed cholesterol and saturated fat were the primary culprits of heart disease, and played down studies that suggested that sugar played a critical role.
“Let me assure you this is quite what we had in mind and we look forward to its appearance in print,” wrote a sugar industry employee to one of the researchers focusing on fat.
That research, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, was credited with influencing decades of health policy, where reducing fat — and not sugar — was emphasized as a way of combating heart disease.
There has also been increasing scrutiny in recent years of the soda industry’s influence over the public health debate, especially over soda’s link to obesity, and legislative efforts — soda taxes and soda bans — meant to curb its influence.
Earlier this week, the ABA announced that it would stop paying various dietitians to tweet their opposition to soda taxes. The ABA’s largest member, Coca-Cola, had promised to stop paying health experts to do similar work after facing heavy criticism last year.
The New York Times reported in August 2015 that Coca-Cola was funding and providing logistical support to a nonprofit called the Global Energy Balance Network, which played down the role that diet and sugary drinks have in the obesity epidemic, and stressed the importance of exercise.
Coca-Cola donated $1.5 million to help start GEBN and has funded $4 million worth of research projects by two of the group's founders.
Aaron, a medical student at the BU School of Medicine, said he and Siegel started looking at the topic more than a year ago after being surprised to see soda sponsorships for various health events. He didn't expect to find the extent of the sponsorships.
“I was very surprised,” Aaron said. “I don’t think we realized on a day-to-day basis how often this is going on.”
The study raises the concern that, besides using their sponsorships to “develop positive associations for their brands,” they can often lead to silencing potential critics. In 2010, Save the Children, which had been a strong advocate of soda taxes, ended its support after receiving a $5 million grant from Coca-Cola.
Save the Children denied that the grant influenced its policy.
Cristin Kearns, a co-author of the JAMA Internal Medicine report and a researcher at the University of California at San Francisco, who unearthed the 50-year-old correspondence from the sugar industry, said this study “makes a strong argument for how influential these groups are on the public debate.”
She also compared it to the tobacco industry, which for years funded public health organizations to insulate its products from health scrutiny.
“We just haven’t learned our lesson for why these industries fund these organizations,” she said.