Despite the fact that America has a severe obesity problem, fueled in part by the overconsumption of sugar, several prominent public health groups (including some that are government-run) have accepted money from soda companies in recent years.
In a new study published Monday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, researchers at Boston University School of Medicine report that between 2011 to 2015, 96 national health organizations accepted money from Coca-Cola, PepsiCo or both companies. The groups accepting sponsorships included the American Diabetes Association, the National Institutes of Health, the American Red Cross, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and many more (a full list is printed here).
“To see all these organizations [accepting money] is shocking and surprising,” says study author Daniel Aaron, a medical student at Boston University. “I don’t think companies have a legal duty to protect people’s health, but I think these groups do.”
Aaron and his coauthor, Dr. Michael Siegel, a professor of community health sciences at the university, decided to look into the issue after a few relationships between soda companies and public health groups came to light. In 2015 the New York Times reported that Coca-Cola funded an organization called the Global Energy Balance Network that shifted public health messaging away from diet and onto exercise. “We were bothered by that, and a little bit confused, and we wanted to know if this was common,” says Aaron.
Aaron and Siegel researched financial links between Coca-Cola and Pepsi and 96 organizations: 63 public health groups, 19 medical organizations, seven health foundations, five government groups and two food supply groups. They found that Pepsi sponsored 14% of the organizations and Coca-Cola sponsored 99%. However, they believe that the number of financial relationships between Big Soda and public health organizations is likely an underestimate; Coca-Cola recently disclosed its sponsorships, so their financial relationships were easier to find, whereas the study authors say that PepsiCo is “known for making its sponsorship data extremely difficult to track.” Only the two companies were studied, though other soda companies also market their products. The study also only looked at national organizations, and most sponsored organizations are state or city-wide, the researchers report.
The researchers also looked at lobbying efforts by the two soda companies and found that both actively oppose legislation that targets soda and is designed to prevent obesity. Between 2011 and 2015, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo publicly opposed 28 bills and supported one. Among the opposed bills, 12 were soda taxes, four were Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) regulations and one was a limit on soda portion sizes in New York. The one piece of legislation supported by both companies aimed to limit the marketing of soda in schools. However, the bill allowed that drinks like Diet Coke could still be marketed.
“I think [organizations] believe they are not biased, and they can be objective and continue serving the same goals while taking [soda company] money,” says Aaron. “I personally don’t think that is the case.”
Aaron and Siegel write that in 2010, Save the Children, a group that advocated for soda taxes, dropped the cause after they received more than $5 million from Coca-Cola and PepsiCo in 2009. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, which also received soda industry funding, issued a statement declining support for New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s proposed limit on soda portions, arguing nutrition education should be emphasized.
Soda’s link to weight gain and poor health is well established. According to the researchers, evidence suggests that soda consumption has caused one fifth of weight gain in the U.S. between 1977 and 2007. The average American consumed 46 gallons of soda in 2009, one of the highest amounts worldwide.
“It is probable that corporate philanthropy is increasing consumption of soda throughout the country,” Aaron and Siegel write in the study. They argue that by sponsoring health groups, soda companies develop positive cultural associations with their brands and can neutralize critical legislation. Sponsorship is considered a marketing tool by the Federal Trade Commission. “Rather than supporting public health, organizations may become unwitting partners that contribute to corporate marketing strategy,” the authors write.
Some of the health organizations, like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatrics, have recently stopped accepting funding from soda companies, Aaron acknowledges.
Still, the food industry’s influence on Americans’ health goes back decades. As TIME recently reported, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco revealed that the sugar industry funded health research that turned attention away from sugar’s link to heart disease and toward fat as a bigger culprit. The industry also used funding to influence federal guidelines on cavity prevention.
“I want people to know that a lot of important health organizations shaping health in the United States are receiving money from Coca-Cola and Pepsi,” says Aaron. “That money, while it may seem beneficent, is more geared toward marketing. I want people to understand how problematic that is. Health organizations are becoming a marketing tool.”
The American Beverage Association responded to the study on behalf of Coca-Cola and PepsiCo with the following statement:
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.
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.
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.