Health

The Big Money Behind Big Soda Bubbles Up

Parents and kids grow fatter as companies give generously to 'good causes'

The tobacco companies for decades spent millions of dollars sponsoring cancer research and accumulating scientific experts. Whenever someone brought a lawsuit against the tobacco industry, claiming the products caused cancer, the tobacco companies would trot out their experts — who could point to asbestos or air pollution or genetics as a more probable cause.

They purposefully obscured the link between cancer and tobacco.

Save the Children agreed to drop the effort to raise taxes on soda after receiving $5 million in sponsorships from Coca-Cola.

A new report published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine points out that soda companies are the tobacco industry of today. The study shows that between 2011 and 2015, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo contributed financially to 96 national health organizations, at times waylaying legislation that would address America’s obesity epidemic. Coca-Cola spent more than $6 million each year; PepsiCo spent $3 million.

Researchers have linked soda unequivocally to weight gain. In the 1970s, soda amounted to about 4 percent of Americans’ daily calorie intake; that rose to 9 percent in 2001. Children now consume 11 percent of their calories from soda — even though childhood soda consumption leads to calcium deficiencies and bone fractures.

School districts, desperate for money, have accepted generous sponsorships from soda companies in return for on-campus soda vending machines and advertising. And now a third of all American children are considered obese. Extensive research has shown that soda consumption has caused as much as one-fifth of all American weight gain in the last 30 years.

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Related: How Our Kids Can Beat Obesity

Public health experts at Boston University became suspicious of soda companies’ influence when Coca-Cola sponsored a widespread shift in public health discourse away from diet toward a focus on exercise. They began to track corporate philanthropy of the two soda giants and found their sizable contributions often influenced whether a piece of legislation or health campaign were successful.

The companies actually lobbied against 28 different bills between 2011 and 2015. Some would have implemented a soda tax, some would have placed limits on portion sizes, and some addressed soda marketing in schools.

“These companies lobbied against public health intervention in 97 percent of cases, calling into question a sincere commitment to improving the public’s health,” said one researcher.

In one instance, Save the Children, an international organization dedicated to supporting children in developing countries, agreed to drop the effort to raise taxes on soda after receiving $5 million in sponsorships from Coca-Cola. States and cities across the nation have tried to raise taxes on soda more than 40 times in recent years. Only Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, has succeeded so far.

“These companies lobbied against public health intervention in 97 percent of cases, calling into question a sincere commitment to improving the public’s health,” said experts Daniel Aaron and Michael Siegel in the study. “By accepting funding from these companies, health organizations are inadvertently participating in their marketing plans.”

Related: Obesity Linked to 13 Types of Cancer

It’s not astonishing that these companies would try to influence public opinion, but it is surprising that nationally funded health organizations would accept their sponsorship and influence. “To see all these organizations [accepting money] is shocking and surprising,” said Daniel Aaron, a medical student at Boston University, in a media release. “I don’t think companies have a legal duty to protect people’s health, but I think these groups do.”

These groups include the National Institutes of Health, American Academy of Pediatrics, Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, American Diabetes Association, and the National Dental Association. Aaron and Siegel noted that the link between soda companies’ philanthropy and the diabetes research foundations shocked them, especially since the link between soda consumption and diabetes has been well-documented.

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“Previous studies of alcohol company sponsorship and tobacco sponsorship suggest that corporate philanthropy is a marketing tool that can be used to silence health organizations that might otherwise lobby and support public health measures against these industries,” Siegel said in a media release.

However, some of these organizations are catching on. The Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics and the American Academy of Pediatrics did not renew their contracts with the soda companies at the end of 2015. The Boston University researchers recommend that other health organizations similarly reject soda sponsorship. Their conflict of interest just carries too much weight.

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