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American Academy of Family Physicians Cozies Up to Coke

Posted Oct 26 2009 11:04pm

I sometimes think that many prestigious U.S. organizations have badly lost their way recently.  Another possibility is that it's business as usual for all of them and the web provides us with insights into business deals previously gone unnoticed. Here's only one example. A major factor into our obesity epidemic is the sugar-loaded soft drinks. Our politicians are so concerned about this that they want to tax the sugar beverages to restrict usage and, uh, generate new tax revenue (see: Federal Tax on Soda Pop Proposed: Can This Be Justified? ). We now learn that one professional physician society has established a tight (i.e., six-figure) relationship with Coke in order to provide "nutritional" information on its web site. Here's the news (see: Looking for health advice? Dr. Coca-Cola will see you now ):

When the American Academy of Family Physicians [AAFP] announced it had received a substantial grant to enhance educational information about nutrition on its site, you’d think health experts would have been happy. But the money was earmarked to focus on the role of beverages and sweeteners in a healthy diet. And it came from the world’s largest beverage maker, the Coca-Cola Co....“We urge the AAFP to regain its credibility by rejecting the deal with Coca-Cola,” [a recent letter from physician critics] stated. “If the AAFP declines to do that, we urge your organization to reassert its support for the public health (and its own independence) by supporting a warning label on caloric sugar-sweetened beverages and a federal tax on soft drinks to support health promotion or health insurance programs.” The letter noted that soda is “the only food or beverage that has been demonstrated to promote overweight and obesity.”... But the signatories warned that the six-figure grant from Coca-Cola will prevent the doctors group from “criticizing sugar-sweetened beverages in the strongest language.”.... In 2003, the American Academy of Pediatric Dentists took a $1 million payment from Coca-Cola. Before the payment, the dentists' group acknowledged the connection between sugary drinks and dental disease. But after the payment, the president of the AAPD told reporters that the ‘scientific evidence is certainly not clear’ on the role soft drinks play.

I think that there is a need to try to explain how a professional physician society could accept a grant from a company such as Coca-Cola. Surely every physician member in the group would immediately understand that this was a big mistake. I suspect that the short answer is money but this response begs for a more in-depth explanation. Here's one for your consideration. Physician professional societies have two major sources of income. The first is membership dues but this does not amount to serious money. Dues are intentionally set low to encourage greater membership. The second source of revenue are the meetings sponsored by the society. Unfortunately, the net revenue generated by medical conferences is headed south. This is a result of the feeble economy and also a more punitive environment regarding conference sponsorship, particularly regarding various types of payments from pharmaceutical companies.

But wait! Why would physician professional societies need a robust revenue stream? The physician leaders of societies work on an unpaid basis. Well, partly to offset the losses from their print medical journals, which are dinosaurs and will soon disappear, and also to develop their web sites devoted to healthy living and good nutrition. Also keep in mind that many such societies, particularly the largest, have hired executive directors who have salaries in the high six figures and a large cadre of well-paid staff members. As a result, the leaders of such societies are increasingly on the hunt for companies that are willing to write big checks for the endorsement of some of their (frequently) unhealthy or unnecessary products. Hence the embarrassing news about the AAFP noted above.

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