November 6, 2009

Physician’s Group Takes Flak For Coke Deal

A recent deal between the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) and Coca-Cola has provoked hard criticism from a number of corners as the two unlikely bedfellows prepare to launch an online educational forum providing health information about soft drinks.

AAFP chief executive Dr. Douglas Henley defended the alliance on Wednesday, saying that the deal would not affect the integrity of the academy's public health mission and reassuring critics that the multinational soft drink giant would have no editorial control over their website's content.

The new branch of the AAFP's website that will be sponsored by Coca-Cola will be aimed at providing the latest research information and statistics linking obesity to sugar-rich soft drinks and will weigh the benefits of sugar-free alternatives. 

Critics, however, believe that the academy has in essence made a pact with the devil.

"Coca-Cola, like other sodas, causes enormous suffering and premature death by increasing the risks of obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, gout, and cavities," nutritionist Dr. Walter Willett of Harvard University told the Associated Press (AP).

Willett argues that the academy should have been one of the most vocal critics of such "products and practice" but will instead in all likelihood have their voice "muzzled" by their six-figure deal with the powerful cola company.

Public health expert Dr. Henry Blackburn of the University of Minnesota offered a similar appraisal of the alliance to the AP, saying that it "will inevitably have a chilling effect on the focus of their message in regards to sweet drinks."

Coca-Cola representatives, however, say that the deal's detractors have not understood the purpose of the deal.

According to Coca-Cola spokeswoman Diana Garza Ciarlante, their criticism "misses the point of the partnership which is to provide education based on sound science."

Dr. William Walker, a public health officer for a small county outside San Francisco, told the AP he resigned his 25-year membership to the academy last week after catching wind of the Coca-Cola deal.  He said that at least 20 of his colleagues at local medical facilities had also quit the organization for the same reason.

Walker compared the deal with advertisements from the 1960's in which doctors claimed that smoking mild cigarettes was harmless.

The academy announced last month that the educational material will be available on their website in January and added that its purpose would be to "develop educational materials to help consumers make informed decisions so they can include the products they love in a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle."

Critics are quick to point out that the Coca-Cola alliance is not the AAFP's first venture to be funded by a dubiously motivated corporate partner, pointing to a 2005 fitness program that was sponsored by the McDonald's fast food chain.

Some 22 health specialists and activists banded together to draft a letter of protest addressed to Dr. Henley, encouraging him to renege on the deal and rejoin the crusade against sugary soft drinks.

While Henley expressed regret over the resignation of a number of the academy's members, he also said that he hopes others will wait to see the content of the upcoming website and not "rush to judgment."


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