Family docs: Have a Coke and a bribe!

soda cans

I’m torn.

I can’t decide whether it was greed or stupidity that led the American Academy of Family Physicians to accept a corporate sponsorship from Coca Cola.

Greed is certainly behind the AAFP decision to create its “Consumer Alliance program.” I love the Orwellian title! AAFP is not allying with consumers. It is partnering with businesses. The businesses will provide money and the AAFP will provide legitimacy. Yet said AAFP President-elect Lori Heim, M.D. disingenuously claims:

The Consumer Alliance program is a way of working with interested companies to develop educational materials to help consumers make informed decisions so they can include the products they love in a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle.

No, it isn’t. The Consumer Alliance solicits money from corporate sponsors to enrich the AAFP coffers.

A partnership with Coca Cola defies comprehension. The American Academy of Family Physicians has been out front in calling attention to the link between soft drinks and obesity, particularly childhood obesity.

Soft drink consumption has increased dramatically in recent decades. The increase corresponds with the rise in obesity and diabetes in the United States. Some evidence suggests that sugar-sweetened beverages increase the risk of childhood obesity. No study has shown that these drinks increase the risk of diabetes, although this relationship is plausible not only because of the added sweeteners but also because the caramel coloring may increase insulin resistance.

The official position of the AAFP is to minimize Coke consumption; the official position of Coca Cola is to maximize Coke consumption. In fact, everything the Coca Cola Company does is designed to maximize Coke consumption and, therefore, profits. If they are giving money to the AAFP it is because they believe that the legitimacy they will gain in exchange will lead to increased profit. The conflict of interest could not possibly be more stark.

I suppose it shouldn’t matter how much you are asking for your soul when you auction it off, but I find it galling that the AAFP had sold its soul so cheaply. AAFP President-elect Heim says the payment “in the strong six figures.” In other words, it took less than a million dollars to convince the AAFP to ally with a purveyor of a product does not improve health and may actually impair it.

The AAFP has clearly learned nothing from the example of other medical organizations that have compromised their credibility with inappropriate corporate sponsorships. The American Medical Association suffered a major blow when forced to renounce a partnership with Sunbeam, a maker of home electronics. According to Quackwatch:

…[T]he American Medical Association announced that it would pay $9.9 million to the Sunbeam Corporation to settle a breach-of-contract suit… The suit was filed … after the AMA announced it would not honor an exclusive 5-year royalty agreement under which the AMA logo would have been placed on Sunbeam’s “Health at Home” products, which included heating pads and humidifiers. The endorsement plan, … had no requirement that the AMA test the products… An investigative report on the management decisions leading to the contract led the AMA’s chief executive officer and two other top AMA executives to resign.

The AMA has never fully recovered from the scandal and has seen its membership drop to less than one third of American physicians.

The American Academy of Family Physicians has made a terrible mistake. It has compromised its integrity and credibility by accepting money from Coca Cola. It should follow the example of the AMA and renounce the partnership. President-elect Heim has managed to besmirch the reputation of the organization even before taking office. Hopefully it is not too late for her to undo the damage.