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Dr. Coca-Cola on Call

The king of Coke teams up with the family docs
October 27, 2009

One thing you have to say about the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) is that it is consistently on the side of the consumer, pointing out how corporate interests too often collide with public health. So it was hardly surprising to see another CSPI press release last week, calling for the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) to return a hefty payment from Coca-Cola that would help fund a new “Consumer Alliance” program. Yes, the very docs health reform advocates say need more financial incentives to do basic doctoring, including the prevention of obesity and diabetes, both rampant across the country. Talk about money-driven medicine, to borrow from Maggie Mahar’s book title.

The docs have joined up with Coca-Cola, which will provide what Academy executive vice president Dr. Doug Henley told me was a “healthy six figure” grant to develop consumer education materials for its Web site, The Academy, which represents some 94,000 doctors with an annual budget of $75 million, has been pursuing non-dues revenue to enhance its Web site. The Coca-Cola money, Henley said, will be used to develop additional information for consumers around “choices about their diet for beverages.” In addition, Henley said, there would be “various sweetener education” materials, including literature references about sweeteners and their impact, either positive or negative, on obesity. “The information is intended to be helpful for consumers, patients, and doctors around the choices they will make,” Henley explained.

Henley was careful to point out that his group has control over the content, and that the Consumer Alliance would not endorse the Coca-Cola brand or any of the company’s products. The only thing the company can say about the arrangement is that Coke is a “proud partner of” Coke doesn’t have to say more. Simply being a partner with a group like the family doctors, which stands for the public good, automatically spruces up Coke’s image and helps stave off unwanted legislation, like a tax on sodas to help fund health coverage for the uninsured.

It’s called “innocence by association,” a tactic used by food and tobacco companies to deflect criticism and reframe any inference that their products cause bad health outcomes. What makes this year’s association so unseemly is all the talk about prevention, obesity, and diabetes, and the cost of the disease in the context of health reform. Let’s hear it for more health reform hypocrisy.

This is not the first time Coke has teamed up with a physician group, hoping to give its brand a clean bill of health. In 2003, Coca-Cola gave the American Academy of Pediatric Dentists $1 million. According to CSPI, before it got the money, the dental group spoke about the link between sugary drinks and dental disease. After the payment, the group’s president told reporters that the “scientific evidence is certainly not clear” about the role of soft drinks in causing poor oral health.

The CSPI expected some press pick up and got a few bites, although not much in the MSM. The Los Angeles Times’s health section, however, jumped on the story; reporter Karen Kaplan dug out some info that looks a lot like a replay of Coke’s deal with the pediatric dentists. Last year, Kaplan reported, the Academy’s journal, American Family Physician, published an article recommending that children and teens “consume no more than one serving of sweetened beverages (e.g. fruit juice, fruit drink, regular-calorie soft drink, sports drink, sweetened or flavored milk, sweetened iced tea) per day.”

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But when she checked the Academy’s Web site recently,, Kaplan found that it advises parents with overweight children to cut down on fast food and dessert. “It makes no mention of soda or other sweetened drinks,” she reported. We looked at a section of the Web site called “Weight Issues in Children” and found lots of general advice, like limiting the amount of TV a child watches, avoid using food as a reward, being a good role model who makes healthy food choices, and providing a healthy diet. Duh! Where was the mention of colas and other beverages? Are the docs saving that advice for when a mom brings in a fat ten-year-old?

Jeff Cronin, the PR guy at CSPI, told me that even some of the family docs are objecting to the Coke money; one has started a petition on Facebook. “Either the story fizzles out, or more major media catch on and this “partnership” turns into a potentially fatal P.R. problem for the AAFP,” said Cronin. News outlets looking for a break from the dreary horserace coverage of Olympia Snowe, Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi et al might want to give this story a little more bounce.

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for CJR's Covering the Health Care Fight. She also blogs for Health News Review and the Center for Health Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.