Big Soda Sponsored 96 Health Groups Over a 5-Year Period

The findings are consistent with earlier work that show how soda companies spend heavily to promote their brands and thwart efforts to regulate or tax their products to address diabetes or obesity.

Coca-Cola and PepsiCo sponsored at least 96 groups, from the American Diabetes Association (ADA) to the American Heart Association (AHA), while fighting laws to limit soda consumption or boost nutrition, according to a new study from Boston University.

The study, appearing in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, said the soda giants “used relationships with health organizations to develop positive associations for their brands,” said lead author Daniel Aaron, BS, a medical student at the BU School of Medicine, who co-authored the study with Michael Siegel, MD, MPH, professor of Community Health Sciences at the School of Public Health.

The findings are consistent with other reports of how the soda companies have, for decades, used philanthropy and research support to thwart efforts like soda taxes and other efforts to curb the impact their products have on the growing epidemics of obesity and diabetes. In the summer of 2015, The New York Times unveiled an effort by Coca-Cola to underwrite a research initiative called the Global Energy Balance Institute. And the decades of activity were outlined in last year’s book, Soda Politics, by Marion Nestle, PhD, MPH, of New York University.

One of Nestle’s arguments is that the soda giants copied the earlier efforts of Big Tobacco, but ultimately, it became taboo for serious researchers to accept funding from the cigarette companies. Thus, there was some irony in a splashy finding earlier this year in JAMA Internal Medicine that 50 years ago, sugar companies steered a generation of research on heart disease away from sugar. For decades, starting in the Great Depression, the tobacco companies bankrolled JAMA and, later, a tobacco research institute, while much of the medical community looked the other way about the link between cigarettes and cancer.

The BU study aims to list the health organizations that have recently taken funds from the soda companies, while acknowledging that for some, acceptance amounts to becoming an unwitting partner in soda’s marketing enterprise. The study found that 12 organizations accepted money from both companies—1 accepted money from Pepsi and 83 accepted money from Coca-Cola—although the study also noted that only Coca-Cola publishes a list of its recipients.

Besides the ADA, recipients include the JDRF, formerly known as the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. JDRF said in a statement to The Washington Post that it is focused on work to treat and cure type 1 diabetes, “an autoimmune disease,” not type 2 disease, which is caused by “diet or lifestyle choices.”

In a statement released to The Washington Post, the AHA said the organization “is leading efforts to reduce the consumption of sugary drinks. To achieve our goals, we must engage a wide variety of food and beverage companies to be part of the solution.”

Referencing AHA’s recent call for limits on sugar consumption for children, the statement said, “As clearly evidenced by our work, under no circumstances does such occasional funding have any influence on our science and the public policy positions we advocate for.”

In a statement released to The American Journal of Managed Care, ADA said that the organization "leads the fight against the deadly consequences of diabetes and provides objective, credible information about the disease. We never allow corporations to place restrictions or conditions on their funding to influence the research we support or the policy positions for which we advocate."

ADA's statement said the group had received 2 grants that totaled $125,000 in 2012, which represented 0.0547% of its budget. In addition to supporting initiatives that address taxes on sugar-sweetened beverages, the 2013 ADA Scientific Sessions included a symposium that featured Kimber Stanhope, PhD, RD, one of the nation's leading researchers on the effects of high-fructose corn syrup, as well as a presentation on former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg's controversial proposed soda portion cap.

The Harvard study tabulated spending on 29 bills that were at odds with public health. Researchers found that between 2011 and 2014, Coca-Cola spent an average of $6 million per year, while PepsiCo spent more than $3 million per year. The trade association the American Beverage Association, of which Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are the largest members, spent more than $1 million per year.

A major limitation was the fact that Pepsi did not disclose sponsorship data; also, researchers did not evaluate state and local spending. For example, beverage interests spent heavily in 2014 to derail a proposed soda tax in San Francisco, and again this year to try to thwart Philadelphia’s soda tax. It has been adopted, but is now the subject of litigation.