Imagine a cigarette company financially backing health and anti–smoking organizations, and then turning around and fighting laws that help people stop smoking. Or a gun manufacturer donating to anti–violence groups while opposing gun control legislation—all the while reaping billions from the good PR generated from its charitable donations.
This is exactly what soda makers are doing.
A new report in the American Journal of Preventative Medicine blasts the two largest soda companies, Coca-Cola and Pepsi, for funding nearly 100 health organizations between 2011 and 2015 while simultaneously battling 29 anti–soda and nutrition–boosting policies. The paper lists out the 96 nonprofits or government agencies—from nonprofits fighting diabetes to anti–hunger groups—that received some funding from either Coke or Pepsi between 2011 and 2015, followed by national and state–level legislation that impacted soda companies in some way. In an overwhelming 97 percent of the cases, soda companies and their lobbying organizations opposed laws that would have regulated soda marketing, introduced labels for genetically engineered foods, or levied a tax on sugary drinks.
Follow the money
Between 2011 and 2014, the two companies spent an average of $9 million per year fighting local, state, and national legislation, according to the AJPM paper. In 2009, those numbers spiked when Coca-Cola, Pepsi, and the American Beverage Association combined to spend more than $36 million lobbying against a national tax on sugary beverages.
That Big Beverage companies fight laws that will cut into their profits should come as no surprise. Neither should it surprise anyone that these companies sometimes finance nutrition researchers, some of whom turn around and publish papers that are positive or neutral toward soda consumption or marketing. (Dr. Marion Nestle, a nutritionist at New York University, has been following food companies’ funding of academic nutrition research for years. She recently published some commentary on the subject for the Journal of the American Medical Association.)
What probably will surprise many people is the rampant funding of nutrition and health nonprofits like Feeding America, The Obesity Society, and the American Heart Association, to name a few.
“Such sponsorships are likely to serve marketing functions, such as to dampen health groups’ support of legislation that would reduce soda consumption and improve soda companies’ public image,” the paper’s authors write in the conclusion. “It is recommended that organizations find alternative sources of revenue in order to stop indirectly and inadvertently increasing soda consumption and causing substantial harm to Americans.”
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