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Coca Cola: what have they done for your community lately?

by Nicholas Freudenberg

Coca-Cola, the world’s largest maker of sugary beverages, has spent almost $120 million in the past five years to pay for academic health research, partnerships with major medical groups and community fitness programs aimed at curbing the obesity epidemic, reports the New York Times.

A recent review in the journal Circulation on the “Estimated Global, Regional and National Disease Burdens related to Sugar-Sweetened Beverage Consumption in 2010” concluded that sugar-sweetened beverages(SSBs) “are a single modifiable component of a diet that can impact preventable death/disability in adults in high-, middle-, and low-income countries, indicating an urgent need for a strong global prevention program.” The review estimated that globally, about 184,000 deaths per year were attributable to SSB consumption, of these, 5% occurred in low-income countries, 71% in middle-income countries and 24% in high-income countries. By cause, 72% of the SSB-related deaths were due to diabetes, 24% to cardiovascular disease, and 3.5% to cancer.

In response to the strong public health and media disapproval of Coca Cola’s sometimes covert funding of physical activity research, the world’s largest maker of SSBs this week disclosed the recipients of its grants. Between 2010 and 2015, Coca Cola awarded more than 900 grants to more than 350 organizations. The names of these organizations and the amounts of the awards are posted on the Coca Cola website.  They range from high end recipients such as the American Academy of Family Physicians($3.55 million), the American Academy of Pediatrics($2.98 million), the American College of Cardiology($2.65 million) and the National Park Foundation($2.1 million) to low end awardees like the National Conference of State Legislators Foundation($2,500) and the Columbus Black Nurses Association($1,500).

In addition to the “strong global prevention program” on SSBs that the Circulation article authors called for, Coke’s disclosure enables a local discussion about prevention at the organizations that accepted funds from the company. Here are some questions for the leaders, staff, and users of these organizations to consider:

  1. What is the attributable burden of SSB related deaths and illnesses in our community? What share of the preventable burden of SSB-related disease in our community can be attributed to Coca Cola, the market leader in soda globally?
  2. What did my organization and community gain and lose by agreeing to take money from Coke? What did Coca Cola gain and lose? What costs is Coca Cola imposing on my community?
  3. What strategies will best encourage Coca Cola to make changes in its health damaging practices and products — taking money from them, advocating legislation that will limit their ability to market their products, shaming them for producing products that sicken their users, or something else?

Let the discussions begin!