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American Academy of Pediatrics decides relationship with Coke is not so sweet

September 30, 2015 at 6:20 PM EDT
Coca-Cola, the world's largest producer of sugary beverages, had been a partner and sponsor of the American Academy of Pediatrics. But the Academy is now ending its relationship after revelations that the company has paid for scientific research playing down the role of soda in obesity. Hari Sreenivasan learns more from Anahad O'Connor of The New York Times.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Now we look at a second health story, one about childhood obesity, the role of sugary drinks in fueling the epidemic and corporate influence.

A series of reports is putting a fresh spotlight on the spending and role of Coca-Cola, a company that’s known for its sweet products.

Hari Sreenivasan has more from our New York studios.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Coke is the world’s largest producer of sugary beverages, so you might not think the American Academy of Pediatrics would partner with the company. But that had indeed been the case until this week. It was a main sponsor of the academy’s Web site, healthychildren.org, and a past sponsor of the group’s national conference.

It’s provided over $100 million in financial support to other professional medical and health groups as well. The Academy is now ending its relationship with Coke. And it comes after a recent story in The New York Times laid out how the company has paid for scientific research that plays down the role of soda in obesity.

Anahad O’Connor has been working on these stories, joins me now.

So, I guess the first story — or the most recent story first, what’s the connection between Coke and the Academy of Pediatrics?

ANAHAD O’CONNOR, The New York Times: So, the first story I did was looking at Coke’s — the money that they were paying a lot of researchers and institutions to do research that, you know, was downplaying the role of sugary drinks in obesity.

And in response to that story, the CEO of Coca-Cola said, we’re not trying to deceive the public. We’re trying to work with institutions to promote active healthy living, and we are going to release all of the funding that we provided to scientists, universities, to health groups over the past five years.

And so they released a trove of data showing this extensive number of grants. And in that data, we saw that the American Academy of Pediatrics was in there, and Coke had provided something like $3 million to the Academy, at least over the past five years.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And how do the pediatricians feel?

ANAHAD O’CONNOR: So, the actual members of the Academy — and there’s more than 64,000 pediatricians who are part of this Academy — it’s very prestigious — a lot of them are very upset. When I spoke to them, they said they couldn’t believe that the Academy had partnered with Coke or worked with it to any extent, because sugary drinks are considered a very major factor in the obesity epidemic, especially among children.

These pediatricians see the effects of it firsthand. They see type 2 diabetes, hypertension. You know, all these diseases that used to occur in middle age and later in life, they see them in children now. And they think that sugary drinks are a primary influence of that. So, pediatricians were very upset.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And yet they are — here they are at a conference, and they’re carrying around bags that have Coke in it while they’re trying to tell their patients don’t feed your kids sugary drinks.

ANAHAD O’CONNOR: Yes, so some pediatricians said it was analogous to, you know, a major lung association group or university partnering with, you know, the tobacco industry. It just was completely contradictory.

HARI SREENIVASAN: So, what’s the correlation? Is there influence on academic research? You point to a case in Louisiana.

ANAHAD O’CONNOR: So there was a case in Louisiana at the Pennington Biomedical Center at Louisiana State University.

They actually were one of the largest recipients of Coke money. They took something like $7 million over the past five years. And they just recently released the results of a major worldwide study that looked at obesity in children and the major factors of the epidemic. And they found that some of the major causes were a lack of sleep, a lack of exercise, television

The one thing they didn’t mention was sugary drinks. And that seemed very striking, because you look at other independent research, and it’s all pointing to sugary drinks. But the universities and institutions that are taking Coke money, many of them are, you know, seeming to exclude sugary drinks from, you know, the obesity epidemic.

HARI SREENIVASAN: And how singular is Coke in this? I mean, in the past, there have been companies, industries, lobbying efforts on Capitol Hill. Certainly, that still happens. Are there other food companies or beverage companies that are trying this?

ANAHAD O’CONNOR: So, Coke is certainly part of several lobbying and trade groups where — that are — also include other large corporations and food and industry players.

But Coca-Cola really seemed to have been out front on this. I talked to one expert, Marion Nestle at NYU, who wrote a book called “Soda Politics” and studies the beverage industry and the food industry, and she said that she had never seen another corporation that had such a hand in so many public institutions.

You know, Coke has partnered with all of these academic and medical groups. They have partnered with the Boys and Girls Club. They have partnered with minority groups like the NAACP and the Hispanic Federation. And, you know, they’re winning loyalty and allies.

So, for example, when Michael Bloomberg, you know, tried to introduce his, you know, soda cap and restrictions in 2012, the beverage industry, supported by Coke, filed a lawsuit against Michael Bloomberg, and the NAACP and the Hispanic Federation actually filed amicus briefs supporting the beverage industry against Bloomberg.

And that was very shocking, because the minority communities have a disproportionately high prevalence of obesity, and, you know, they seemed to be able to benefit the most from soda restrictions. And yet these groups were siding with industry.

HARI SREENIVASAN: Anahad O’Connor of The New York Times, thanks so much for joining us.

ANAHAD O’CONNOR: Thank you for having me.

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