AAFP Makes Deal With Coke For "Educational" Content

Last Updated Oct 7, 2009 8:25 PM EDT

The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) has struck a deal with Coca-Cola to sponsor its consumer-focused website, familydoctor.org. Coca-Cola will underwrite the development of "consumer education content on beverages and sweeteners," according to the AAFP. The medical society expects to sign up other corporate sponsors in coming months, but the Coke agreement is likely to raise eyebrows in light of the fact that soft drinks and other sweetened beverages have been implicated in our obesity epidemic.

Dr. Lori Heim, a family physician and hospitalist who is president-elect of the AAFP, makes no apologies for the association's partnership with Coca-Cola. Having worked with Coke and other companies on other "educational endeavors," she says, "we [the AAFP] know that we share common goals." In this particular case, she notes, the goal is "to talk about sweetened and unsweetened beverages, and how you integrate that into a healthy, active lifestyle."

Wait a minute. Haven't studies shown that the high caloric content of soft drinks contributes to excessive weight gain, especially among young people? And doesn't Coke sell those same soft drinks?

Heim points out that some of her patients drink too much soda and fruit juice, and others drink about the right amount. "Some of them can drink sweetened beverages without too much detriment, and they know how to do it in moderation. With others, I have to do a lot of education...We feel this program is a good way for consumers to learn more so they can start making healthy choices."

Heim also observes that studies of the relationship between soft drinks and obesity have shown mixed results. She cites a "meta-analysis"-essentially, a review of studies-in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition that found that, among children and adolescents, there was little correlation between sweetened beverages and body-mass index. However, when you read the whole study, you discover that the evidence does point to possible problems among those who are already overweight or at risk of becoming overweight.

(This paper, by the way, was produced by the Center for Food, Nutrition, and Agricultural Policy at the University of Maryland. While the center's literature stresses the independence of its research, it receives funding from "the U.S. government, international organizations, and the broad-based food and agriculture community" [emphasis added].)

When I ask Heim why so many schools have withdrawn sweetened beverages and snacks from vending machines, she replies, "Because it's much harder for a grade school child to make a good decision without parental supervision. We're not expecting children or teens to be the primary people to go to familydoctor.org. It's more about the adults who are trying to teach their kids. When you remove all of the soft drinks from vending machines, that's a way of managing what they do. But let's face it, in the rest of society, those things are out there. And we have to teach people to use food groups that may not be good for them in moderation, so they can manage their weight."

That seems fair enough, and Heim also assures us that the AAFP will not allow any educational material on its website that it does not approve of or that promotes any "brand, product or service." But at the end of the day, corporations do not spend money on "educational materials" unless it somehow promotes their products. And I am not sure that the AAFP is doing people any favor by telling them it's ok to consume soft drinks that have no nutritional value but can make them fatter--and therefore, more subject to a host of chronic diseases.

  • Ken Terry

    Ken Terry, a former senior editor at Medical Economics Magazine, is the author of the book Rx For Health Care Reform.