The beverage giants Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have given millions of dollars to nearly 100 prominent health groups in recent years, while simultaneously spending millions to defeat public health legislation that would reduce Americans’ soda intake, according to public health researchers.
The findings, published on Monday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, document the beverage industry’s deep financial ties to the health community over the past five years, as part of a strategy to silence health critics and gain unlikely allies against soda regulations.
The study’s authors, Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University school of public health, and Daniel Aaron, a student at Boston University’s medical school, scoured public records including news releases, newspaper databases, lobbying reports, the medical literature and information released by the beverage giants themselves. While some of the incidents cited in the study already have been reported by news organizations, the medical journal report is the first to take a comprehensive look at the industry’s strategy of donating to health organizations while at the same time lobbying against public health measures. The study tracked industry donations and lobbying spending from 2011 through 2015, at a time when many cities were mulling soda taxes or other regulations to combat obesity.
“We wanted to look at what these companies really stand for,” said Mr. Aaron, the study’s co-author. “And it looks like they are not helping public health at all — in fact they’re opposing it almost across the board, which calls these sponsorships into question.”
Mr. Aaron said that the industry donations created “clear-cut conflicts of interest” for the health groups that accepted them.
The report found a number of instances in which influential health groups accepted beverage industry donations and then backed away from supporting soda taxes or remained noticeably silent about the initiatives.
In one instance cited in the study, the nonprofit group Save the Children, which had actively supported soda tax campaigns in several states, did an about face and withdrew its support in 2010. The group had accepted a $5 million grant from Pepsi and was seeking a major grant from Coke to help pay for its health and education programs for children.
Responding to the new research, Save the Children said, in a statement, that the group in 2010 had decided to focus on early childhood education, and that its decision to stop supporting soda taxes “was unrelated to any corporate support that Save the Children received.”
When New York proposed a ban on extra-large sodas in 2012, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics cited “conflicting research” and didn’t support the effort. The academy accepted $525,000 in donations from Coke in 2012. The following year it took a $350,000 donation from the company.
The academy said it no longer has a sponsorship relationship with the beverage firms.
The N.A.A.C.P. and the Hispanic Federation have publicly opposed anti-soda initiatives despite disproportionately high rates of obesity in black and Hispanic communities. Coke made more than $1 million in donations to the N.A.A.C.P. between 2010 and 2015, and more than $600,000 to the Hispanic Federation between 2012 and 2015. The groups did not respond to requests for comment.
“The beverage industry is using corporate philanthropy to undermine public health measures,” said Kelly D. Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, who was not involved in the new research.
The American Diabetes Association accepted $140,000 from the company between 2012 and 2014. The American Heart Association received more than $400,000 from Coke between 2010 and 2015. And the National Institutes of Health received nearly $2 million from Coke between 2010 and 2014.
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