Were soda company donations to health groups a conflict of interest?

A new study shows that between 2011 to 2015, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo made donations to 96 national health organizations.

Business Wire/File
Coca-Cola celebrates its donation to an event at Clark Atlanta University in which female student athletes competed to win $15,000 in donations to local heart health organizations in 2011.

Soft drink companies Pepsi Co and Coca Cola are donating massive amounts of money to the nation’s top health groups, including the American Diabetes Association, and the National Institutes of Health, finds a new study by Boston University researchers.

These soda companies have donated millions to more than 100 health groups, according to study authors, even while they lobby against public health legislation.

What surprised some of the researchers involved with the study, however, was not that the companies made the donations, but rather, that the health groups accepted them.

“To see all these organizations [accepting money] is shocking and surprising,” says Boston University medical student and study author Daniel Aaron. “I don’t think companies have a legal duty to protect people’s health, but I think these groups do.”

Mr. Aaron and Boston University school of public health professor Michael Siegel examined information from lobbying records to medical literature to information released by the soda companies for this study. They say that what they found disturbed them.

At a time when 2 in 3 American adults and about 1 in 3 children are labeled as overweight or obese, many cities and municipalities are considering public health measures such as soda bans or limits on cup sizes.

Philadelphia, for example, recently instituted a tax on sugary drinks. In 2009, the White House considered a nationwide tax on sweetened drinks. Other cities and states have also considered similar measures.

Naturally, soda companies such as Pepsi and Coca Cola spend a significant amount of money fighting these bans.

"During the study period, these two soda companies lobbied against 29 public health bills intended to reduce soda consumption or improve nutrition," researchers wrote in the study.

Study authors noted several separate occasions in which soda companies donated large sums to public health organizations, and those organizations then backed away from supporting public health initiatives.

In one case, a group called Save the Children had publicly supported soda taxes in a number of states, before it received a $5-million grant for education programs from Pepsi. After the grant, it stepped away from the beverage measures, a move the group attributes to a decision to focus more on education, rather than corporate sponsorship.

The beverage companies say that only a small portion of their revenue is from soft drinks, and that their role in the public health fight goes far beyond beverage consumption.

“We believe that obesity is a complex, multifaceted issue and that our company has an important role to play in addressing it – which includes engaging with public health organizations and responding to consumers’ demand for healthier products,” said Pepsi in a statement.

The New York Times reported in 2015 that Coca Cola had paid for a study that minimized the link between soft drinks and obesity.

The Boston University study found that between 2011 and 2015, Pepsi, Coca Cola, and trade group the American Beverage Association donated more than $10 million per year to fighting public health measures like drinks taxes.

Nevertheless, these companies continue to sponsor health groups.

“We wanted to look at what these companies really stand for,” said Aaron. “And it looks like they are not helping public health at all – in fact they’re opposing it almost across the board, which calls these sponsorships into question.”

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