A new study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine exposes Big Soda’s use of the American College of Sports Medicine and other organizations allegedly dedicated to public health. Authors Daniel Aaron and Michael Siegel, of Boston University, compiled a list of 96 organizations funded by Coca-Cola and/or PepsiCo between the years 2011 and 2015. In addition, Aaron and Siegel reviewed the numerous times Big Soda has lobbied against public health measures. They conclude that ACSM, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the National Institutes of Health have become Big Soda’s “partners that contribute to corporate marketing strategy.”
Unfortunately, Aaron and Siegel significantly understate the scale of the problem. And they omitted some of the most pernicious soda corruption – PepsiCo’s deadly penetration of the fitness industry.
First, the good news. We hail the Aaron study for shedding light on Big Soda’s deadly corruption of health science. While sources such as Anahad O’Connor, Marion Nestle, and our blog have covered this fact for years, a certain segment of the population prefers to learn information after a peer-reviewed journal has blessed it worthy for publication. And all new attention directed towards this deadly collaboration contributes towards CrossFit’s ultimate goal of driving Big Soda out of the health sciences.
Recent academic research has focused on the food industry’s manipulation of science, and thus policy, during the 1960’s and 70’s. It is important to know that the Sugar lobby prevented the NIH from examining the health consequences of sugar, and secretly paid researchers who blamed heart disease on fat instead of sugar. By all signs, however, industry corruption of health science is worse in 2016 than it was back then. Big Soda has just gotten better at hiding its payments.
Instead of paying scientists and public officials directly, Big Soda launders its money through third parties such as the American College of Sports Medicine, CDC Foundation, and the International Life Sciences Institute. 2016 Coke is Season 5 Marlo Stanfield – it’s learned to cover its tracks.
Despite Coke and Pepsi’s sophisticated money-laundering operation, the outcome remains the same: corrupt science and policy. And to the Aaron study’s credit, it dismantles the excuses that ACSM and its soda-sponsored partners make for accepting Coca-Cola and PepsiCo payments.
ACSM insists that its Big Soda partnerships do not “interfere with, influence or keep the College from achieving its mission.” Siegel and Aaron aren’t buying this idea. Instead, they point out that Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are exploiting the ACSM, CDC and NIH and others as marketing tools:
“Previous literature suggests that sponsorships of health organizations can have a nefarious impact on public health … These soda companies use relationships with health organizations to develop positive associations for their brand, which is important for their bottom line. Soda companies also can neutralize potential legislative opposition by invoking reciprocity and financial dependence on the part of national health organizations. Rather than supporting public health, organizations may become unwitting partners that contribute to corporate marketing strategy.”
While the marketing part is assuredly true, should they really assert that the ACSM is “unwitting” when it partners with Coca-Cola on Exercise is Medicine? Is it just a coincidence that ACSM’s EIM scheme tells trainers not to give particular nutritional advice? Could ACSM really be so naive as to doubt that soda funding affects scientific objectivity? No – its recent President, Lawrence Armstrong, admitted precisely that in the Wall Street Journal.
Lastly, Aaron and Siegel took significant personal risks by exposing the CDC and NIH’s partnership with Coca-Cola. Researchers’ careers, and their university employers, often depend on federal government funding. Criticizing the NIH and CDC for collaborating with the enemies of public health may imperil Aaron and Siegel’s careers. Aware of this risk, they still chose to tell the truth.
What Aaron and Siegel Miss
Here is a snapshot of the Aaron study’s table:
There are several problems here. First, the authors overlooked the ACSM’s PepsiCo relationship (note the lack of a “P” next to the ACSM’s filing). PepsiCo owns Gatorade, and Gatorade has maintained a relationship with the ACSM for over a generation. Even though it’s the subject of a 2012 book by Dr. Tim Noakes and is responsible for promoting fatal hydration guidelines, researchers missed the ACSM-Gatorade partnership, likely due to their flawed search methods.
Aaron and Siegel only searched for the terms “Coca-Cola and Pepsi.” This was not a wise choice. Coca-Cola and Pepsi each own dozens of subsidiaries. So if Quaker Oats, Gatorade, Vitamin Water, Frito-Lay, or Naked Juice funds an organization, that still counts as Big Soda funding – it is just less embarrassing for the recipient. A complete review of Big Soda’s health corruption would have required searching for funding from each Coca-Cola and PepsiCo subsidiary as well.
Furthermore, the researchers missed the National Strength and Conditioning Association’s partnership with PepsiCo, most recently covered by US News and World Report. As a personal trainer certification provider, NSCA certainly sees itself as a public health organization. For example, the NSCA is a member of the Coalition for the Registration of Exercise Professionals, an organization dedicated to “earning recognition as a health provider for” its members’ certified trainers. NSCA also belongs to the National Physical Activity Plan, an organization that advocates for changing “public health guidelines” surrounding physical activity.
The researchers do not bear full responsibility for omitting the ACSM and NSCA’s PepsiCo partnerships though. Whereas Coca-Cola has published a list of some health organizations it has funded, they note that “PepsiCo has not followed suit.” And PepsiCo’s tax filings are notoriously illegible. CrossFit Inc. is well aware of PepsiCo’s failure to reveal its pay-outs. We are dedicating substantial resources to helping PepsiCo become more transparent, just as we helped Coca-Cola.
Finally, Aaron and Siegel neglected to examine one of Big Soda’s most powerful tools for influencing academia: pouring rights contracts. For example, their own Boston University signed a 15-year contract to exclusively provide PepsiCo products to its 30,000+ students. While we do not know how much Boston University yielded exposing its students to PepsiCo products, Ohio State University signed a $32 million pouring rights contract with Coca-Cola. Pouring rights contracts are often far more lucrative than direct sponsorship deals, and researchers interested in Big Soda Corruption are remiss to ignore them.
CrossFit Inc. has been on the Big Soda beat for years. Researchers and journalists new to Big Soda’s corruption should email russ dot greene at crossfit dot com. We are happy to share our files (though not our informants).