Between 2011 and 2014, Coca-Cola spent more than $6m annually on lobbying, while PepsiCo spent more than $3m a year, and the American Beverage Association spent more than $1m a year, according to the study.
Within that same five-year period, Coca-Cola and PepsiCo lobbied against at least 28 public health bills intended to reduce soda consumption or improve nutrition, according to the study in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine.
The companies "used relationships with health organizations to develop positive associations for their brands," said lead author Daniel Aaron, a medical student at the BU School of Medicine who co-wrote the study with Michael Siegel, MD, professor of community health sciences at the School of Public Health.
Aaron and Siegel researched sponsorships and lobbying efforts by the two soda companies to come up with a list of 96 national health organizations that accepted money from the companies.
Twelve organizations accepted money from both companies; one accepted money from just PepsiCo; and 83 accepted money from only Coca-Cola. The authors note that the count could be skewed because Coca-Cola publishes a list of its recipient organizations, while PepsiCo does not.
Sponsorships contradict purpose of US health organizations
Soda consumption has been identified by medical research as one of major factors contributing the country’s highest obesity rates.
In fact, a recent report estimated that soda consumption caused one-fifth of weight gain in the U.S. between 1977 and 2007. On average, Americans consumed 46 gallons of soda in 2009, giving the US one of the highest rates of per capita soda consumption of any country.
The sponsorship totals include two diabetes organizations - the American Diabetes Association and the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation - a finding that the authors called "surprising, given the established link between diabetes and soda consumption."
The study also identifies 28 bills or proposed regulations, including soda taxes and restrictions on advertising, that were opposed by the soda companies or their lobbying groups. Siegel and Aaron said these efforts demonstrate the companies' "primary interest of improving profit, at the expense of public health."
Big soda responds to report
BeverageDaily received the following comment from the William M. Dermody Jr., the vice president of policy for American Beverages Association, in defense of the investment soda companies have made in health organizations:
"America’s beverage companies are engaged in public health issues because we, too, want a strong, healthy America. We have a long tradition of supporting community organizations across the country. As this report points out, some of these organizations focus on strengthening public health, which we are proud to support.
"We are making a difference through the voluntary actions we are taking to reduce calories and sugar from beverage consumption - and by working together as competitors. Through our efforts, we’ve engaged with prominent public health groups on how best to help people moderate their calories in what is the single-largest voluntary effort by any industry to address obesity.
"Yes, we may disagree with some in the public health community on discriminatory and regressive taxes and policies on our products. But, we believe our actions in communities and the marketplace are contributing to addressing the complex challenge of obesity. We stand strongly for our need, and right, to partner with organizations that strengthen our communities."
PepsiCo told BeverageDaily that the the report incorrectly paints PepsiCo as a "soda company," because only a quarter of its global revenue comes from carbonated soft drinks.
PepsiCo: 'Only a quarter of global revenue comes from CSDs'
"We believe that obesity is a complex, multifaceted issue and that our company has an important role to play in addressing it - which includes engaging with public health organizations and responding to consumers' demand for healthier products.
"Today, about 45% of our revenue comes from everyday nutrition products (such as oats), zero and low calorie beverages, and snacks with low levels of salt and saturated fats," the company said.
Could corporate philanthropy be a marketing tool?
Aaron, the lead author of the study, said: "The soda companies can neutralize potential legislative opposition by invoking reciprocity and financial dependence from national health organizations."
"Rather than supporting public health, organizations may become unwitting partners in a corporate marketing strategy that undermines public health."
Aaron and Siegel compared the ties between soda companies and health groups to corporate sponsorships of tobacco and alcohol companies.
"Previous studies of alcohol company sponsorship and tobacco sponsorship suggest that corporate philanthropy is a marketing tool that can be used to silence health organizations that might otherwise lobby and support public health measures against these industries," Siegel said. For example, Save the Children, a group that supported soda taxes, dropped the effort in 2010 after receiving more than $5m from the Coca-Cola Company and PepsiCo in 2009, the study says.
When BeverageDaily reached out to Save the Children about the funding and whether they considered the funding from Coca-Cola and PepsiCo a conflict of interest, the organization said:
"In 2010, Save the Children US was part of a coalition of nonprofits and advocacy groups which had the soda tax as one of their policy issues. The organization made the decision to leave the coalition, because our priority policy focus was on early childhood education, where it remains. At the time, the organization made it clear this decision on policy focus was unrelated to any corporate support that Save the Children received."
The study recommends that health organizations reject sponsorship offers from soda companies and find alternative sources of funding. It notes that Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, the American Academy of Pediatrics and other organizations did not renew contracts with Coca-Cola at the end of 2015.
Source: American Journal of Preventive Medicine
“Sponsorship of National Health Organizations by Two Major Soda Companies”
Authors: Daniel G. Aaron, BS, Michael B. Siegel, MD, MPH, et al.