Some of the most trusted organizations in public health, from Harvard University Medical School to the American Cancer Society and the American Medical Association, are linked by two common donors: Coca-Cola and Pepsi.
Together, the industry giants sponsored 96 national health organizations from 2011 to 2015, in addition to money spent on lobbying, according to a new study published in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine. Those organizations include many which are dedicated to fighting obesity.
This isn't totally new information, but it is striking seeing the extent of their influence from a bird's-eye view. Authors Daniel Aaron of the Boston School of Medicine and Michael Siegel of the Boston School of Public Health collated publicly available information into one place, to better see the full extent of Pepsi and Coke's influence on health policy and research.
Aaron and Siegel noticed that nobody had collected this information together before.
"Although corporate sponsorship by tobacco and alcohol companies has been studied extensively," they write, "there has been no systematic attempt to catalog sponsorship activities of soda companies." Until now, that is.
The report contains not only the list of sponsored organizations, but also details of legislation that has been lobbied against on behalf of Coke and Pepsi. It shows just how pervasive these soda companies are in their efforts to protect their industry. Importantly, the authors excluded any health campaigns run or created by Coke of Pepsi.
Corporate sponsorship matters, because it is believed to affect the actions of the organizations receiving the money. "Health and medical organizations would naturally be expected to promote policies that reduce soda consumption," write the authors. "However, it has been documented that a number of health organizations have retreated from this responsibility by withdrawing from public debate on policies to reduce soda consumption, opposing soda legislation, or actually collaborating with soda companies to produce joint educational materials."
It is also a risk that sponsored organizations might feel obliged to give their sponsors spots at health conferences, allowing them to speak and influence the discussion. Corporate sponsorship from the tobacco and alcohol industries has been studied, by Siegel and others, and now that spotlight is being turned on sugar peddlers.
Of the 96 organizations receiving money from Coca-Cola and Pepsi, 63 were public health organizations, 19 were organizations, and the rest consisted of health foundations, government organizations, and food-supply groups. The list even includes the American Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, "which is surprising," says the report, "given the established link between diabetes and soda consumption."
The report gives seemingly great examples of the effects of these donations:
For example, Save the Children, a group that promoted soda taxes, suddenly dropped this effort in 2010 after receiving more than $5 million from the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo in 2009.
Here's another one:
For example, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, which accepts money from Coca-Cola to administer a large public health initiative called Project HELP, staunchly fought Mayor Bloomberg’s proposed soda portion size limit in New York City.
The second part of the report, sourced from Google and LexisNexis, details the lobbying done by Coke and Pepsi in the same five-year period. This shows nothing that you wouldn't expect. The two soda giants lobbied against local, state, and national soda taxes, GMO labeling laws, restrictions on marketing to children and in schools, and restrictions on junk food.
These are far from surprising, but the extent of the lobbying is impressive. "These companies lobbied against public health intervention in 97% of cases," says the report, "calling into question a sincere commitment to improving the public’s health."
You can draw your own conclusions from these numbers, but the overall picture is pretty clear. Soda and sugary drinks can cause weight gain, obesity, and other health problems. Meanwhile, Coke and Pepsi fight legislation that would improve public health, and sponsor medical and health organizations, with the possible effect of influencing these organizations' policies and actions. That sounds like the kind of behavior that should be more closely scrutinized.
Have something to say about this article? You can email us and let us know. If it's interesting and thoughtful, we may publish your response.