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Speak Out Against Ill-Advised Coke-Doctors Partnership

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Recently, the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP)--in a move away from pharmaceutical funding--accepted a "strong six-figure" grant for a new "consumer alliance partnership" with the Coca-Cola Company, the world's largest beverage company, to create content about beverages and sweeteners for its award-winning consumer website, www.FamilyDoctor.org.

The medical academy--which represented 94,614 family physicians, residents and medical students nationwide as of Dec. 2008--should be ashamed of itself for accepting a six-figure sum from a soda company that sells empty-calorie, sweet drinks--usually with fructose--which numerous peer-reviewed medical studies link to obesity, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, strokes and even premature death.

In my opinion, it's a conflict of interest for the AAFP--whose vision is "to achieve optimal health for everyone"--to allow Coke to "educate" visitors to its website in how nutrient-lacking, obesity-generating beverages can fit into a "healthy" lifestyle.

Furthermore, it's hard to fathom how www.FamilyDoctor.org can offer "credible information on beverages and enable consumers to make informed decisions," as a Coca-Cola spokesperson maintains on the website.

For a doctors' group to take a high six-figure sum from Coke is like accepting hundreds of thousands of dollars from Big Tobacco to create physician-approved website content that claims smoking cigarettes can be part of a healthy lifestyle.

The AAFP website will likely push Coke's agenda to encourage consumption of sugar-filled beverages, as well as low-calorie or sugar-free drinks containing aspartame, saccharin, sucralose and acesulfame potassium. Research also raises questions about the safety of beverages with artificial sweeteners, with some studies even link to weight gain.

Just as I was posting this, Dr. Douglas Henley, executive vice president and CEO of the American Academy of Family Physicians, returned my call to contend, "We don't believe this consumer alliance impugns our integrity."

Dr. Henley insisted that Coke's high six-figure grant will "enhance the content," that "Coke has nothing to do with writing the material" and that the AAFP has set up a "firewall" to prevent any conflict of interest. "...The development of content is evidence-based and not influenced by the funder [Coke]," he insisted.

What's more, Dr. Henley said that when the revamped, more "robust" website is unveiled in January, you'll even see peer-reviewed literature that links sweetened soda to obesity.

"It's a credit to Coca-Cola" that they were still willing to provide funds knowing that the website may contain "content that's not good for some of their products." Suffice it to say that I was stunned by these naive remarks, because how can you bite the hand that feeds you?

The new Coke partnership -- which was announced in early October and challenged here on the Huffington Post by esteemed nutrition expert and wellness advocate Marion Nestle -- was, in part, driven by a desire to decrease "reliance on pharmaceutical funding," AAFP president-elect Lori Heim, M.D. A.A.F.P. of Vass, N.C. explained in a "Weighty Matters" podcast with Dr. Yoni Freedhoff. Dr. Heim asserted that the medical society would have "full editorial control," that the website wouldn't "endorse" any products and that AAFP may refuse other partnerships.

"We have standards," she claimed, noting that companies must demonstrate "a proven record of responsibility." Implying that Coke fit the bill, Dr. Heim contended that www.familydoctor.org would continue to be a "respected site," with "credible scientific material."

Essentially, the doctors' organization is jumping out of bed with Big Pharma to get intimate with Big Soda. It's like swapping one toxic relationship for another and getting cozy with a selfish partner, who's more concerned about the bottom line than Americans' waistlines.

Meanwhile, in mid-October, a group of 22 "distressed and disappointed" physicians, nutritionists and researchers, headed up by the Center for the Science in Public Interest's Michael F. Jacobson, Ph.D., condemned the Coke-AAFP partnership and urged the medical society "to regain its credibility by rejecting the deal with Coca-Cola." If it declines to do that, the health experts called on the AAFP to support a warning label on caloric sweetened beverages and a federal tax on soft drinks to fund health promotion or health insurance programs.

The open letter of opposition was signed by such esteemed scientists and physicians as Henry Blackburn of the University of Minnesota, George A. Bray of the Louisiana State University, Caldwell B. Esselstyn, Jr., of the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute, Joan Gussow of Columbia University, Lisa R. Young of New York University, and Carlos A. Camargo, Jr., Meir Stampfer, Walter Willett, and Grace Wyshak of the Harvard School of Public Health.

"It's a disturbing trend throughout medicine... when medical organizations and researchers accept support from a [company] with a vested financial interest... in a product [such as Coke], drug or device," Dr. Blackburn, a University of Minnesota public health specialist and epidemiology professor, said in a phone interview. This means, he added, that "it's unlikely" that the academy will speak out against soda."

By signing with Coke, the academy's voice "has almost surely been muzzled," Dr. Walter Willett told AP medical reporter Lindsey Tanner.

2009-11-06-doctorsresigncoke_press_conference_500_141.jpg

Since the AAFP has shown no sign of recanting the deal, on Oct. 28, more than 20 "appalled and ashamed" doctors at the Contra Costa Regional Medical Center in Martinez, California, headed by its director William Walker, M.D., protested the AAFP-Coke alliance in a ceremony that was podcast and videotaped. With "great sorrow," Dr. Walker resigned and ripped up his AAFP membership card, which he's been carrying for 25 years.

In his statement, Dr. Walker cited a study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research, which found that 41% of children aged 2 to 11 and 62% of youths aged 12 to 17 drink one or more sugar-sweetened beverages per day," which is the same as "consuming an amazing 39 pounds of sugar each year in sugar-sweetened beverages alone."

To be sure, Coke officials and other opponents may argue that soft drinks aren't solely responsible for our obesity epidemic. They'll also insist that people don't exercise enough and they overeat other unhealthy foods. While that may be true, medical professionals and health experts tell patients and clients that eliminating empty-calorie, sugary drinks (or "liquid sugar," as the CSPI's Dr. Jacobson puts it) is the single fastest, easiest way to lose weight. In addition, research reveals that cutting out or curtailing soda consumption can reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes and heart disease.

Since, to date, the American Academy of Family Physicians hasn't reneged on its Coke partnership, we urge:

(1) that health advocates, scientists and nutritionists, as well as AAFP members, call on the medical group to return the Coke money and dissolve its relationship with the soda giant;
(2) that AAFP members immediately resign and stay at arm's length until the organization isn't intimate with Coke anymore;
(3) that the AAFP leadership apologize to its members and all Americans for this misguided move to partner with Coke;
(4) that consumers boycott the AAFP www.FamilyDoctor.org website and search elsewhere for credible information; and
(5) that the AAFP urge visitors to its website to limit or eliminate consumption of soft drinks--both sugar-sweetened and sugar-free--to prevent obesity and maintain good health.

We invite all health advocates and AAFP members around the country to join with us as we promote optimal health for all Americans. We also encourage supporters to enter the discussion at the new Facebook group, "End the AAFP and Coca-Cola Collaboration," which was formed by Lenny Lesser, MD, a family-medicine trained, nutrition researcher at UCLA, and to speak out on the two Facebook pages -- either this AAFP Facebook page or this one.

And, of course, please share your comments here on the Huffington Post, too.

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