Wednesday, October 12, 2016

Dieticians are Being Paid Off to Promote Soda Consumption and Oppose Soda Taxes, Defiling their Profession; Soda Companies Following Big Tobacco Playbook

(Note: See addendum below)

Earlier this week, Dan Aaron and I published an article revealing that the major soda companies - Coca-Cola and PepsiCo - are using corporate sponsorship of medical and health organizations as a strategy to improve their public image and head off potential negative publicity and public policies that might reduce soda consumption. Our article focused on the sponsorship of organizations. Today, I discuss the fact that the soda companies are also paying individuals in an attempt to improve their public image and divert attention away from the role that their products play in the obesity epidemic.

According to an article published last week at Ninjas for Health, the Coca-Cola Company is paying a group of dieticians to downplay the significance of soda consumption in weight gain and to oppose soda taxes as a method to reduce soda consumption.

"You may remember the surprise last year that Coca-Cola had paid health experts and university researchers to deflect blame about the health harms of soda. Upon further analysis of the payola list, we found that the majority of them were dietitians. Specifically they were all paid to write articles, TV appearances, and social media content touting mini-Coke cans as a “healthy snack”. ...
So when a group of dietitians suddenly began offering their opinions on the #sodatax hashtag on Twitter this week, I got a little suspicious. Soda taxes are a strategy dietitians should (and do) support in order to decrease soda consumption and promote healthy options. Yet these dietitians were all posting content against the soda tax, including the industry talking point that a soda tax is a grocery tax. That’s just a coincidence right?" ...

"So I compared these tweeters against Coke’s payola list, and guess who appears? Carol Berg Sloan, Robyn Flipse, Pat Baird, Sylvia Klinger, and Kim Galeaz are all part of Coke’s paid dietitian network. And Rosanne Rust discloses her consulting with the American Beverage Association in her Twitter profile. In several of their tweets, they mention @cartchoice (Your Cart Your Choice), a project fighting soda taxes funded by the American Beverage Association and sugar industry. That’s just a coincidence, right?" ...
 
"It looks like Coke is doing it again: Paying dietitians to perpetuate lies that promote soda and swing public opinion against policy solutions to the obesity epidemic it helped cause. These aren’t “health experts”, they are paid promoters of the sugar industry."

I conducted my own investigation and found that there is a large group of dieticians who are essentially being paid by Coca-Cola to express opinions downplaying the role of soda consumption in weight gain and opposing soda taxes. Here is what I found:


Robyn Flipse, MS, RD: Robyn Flipse has advocated against soda taxes. While her web site boasts about her affiliations with organizations like the American Dietetic Association and a number of medical schools, it does not reveal that she is a paid consultant for the Coca-Cola company. And although she lists a number of business clients, she does not disclose Coca-Cola as being one of them. Thus, she not only has a severe conflict of interest that has the perception of biasing her opinions, but she is not readily disclosing this conflict. Moreover, she is listed as a paid consultant to the American Beverage Association, a soda industry lobbying organization that opposes virtually every public health measure being considered to reduce obesity.

Carol Berg Sloan, RDN, FAND: Carol Berg Sloan has advocated against soda taxes. Her January 25 article opposing soda taxes does not disclose that she is a paid consultant of Coca-Cola. Thus, she not only has a severe conflict of interest that has the perception of biasing her opinions, but she is not readily disclosing this conflict. Moreover, she is listed as a paid consultant to the American Beverage Association, a soda industry lobbying organization that opposes virtually every public health measure being considered to reduce obesity.

Pat Baird, MA, RDN: Pat Baird has actually promoted soda consumption. In a recent article, she discloses that she is an "advisory partner" to the food and beverage industry, but does not explain that she, too, is a paid consultant of Coca-Cola. This fact is also hidden on her blog. Thus, she not only has a severe conflict of interest that has the perception of biasing her opinions, but she is not readily disclosing this conflict. Moreover, she is listed as a paid consultant to the American Beverage Association, a soda industry lobbying organization that opposes virtually every public health measure being considered to reduce obesity.

Amy Goodson, MS, RD, CSSD, LD: Amy Goodson has also promoted soda consumption.  Her bio conveniently hides the fact that she is a paid consultant of Coca-Cola. Thus, she not only has a severe conflict of interest that has the perception of biasing her opinions, but she is not readily disclosing this conflict. Moreover, she is listed as a paid consultant to the American Beverage Association, a soda industry lobbying organization that opposes virtually every public health measure being considered to reduce obesity.

Kim Galeaz, RDN CD: Kim Galeaz goes as far as actually promoting soda consumption as a method of hydration. That article discloses that she is an "advocacy consultant for the food, beverage and agriculture industry," but does not reveal that she is a paid consultant of Coca-Cola. Thus, she not only has a severe conflict of interest that has the perception of biasing her opinions, but she is not readily disclosing this conflict. Moreover, she is listed as a paid consultant to the American Beverage Association, a soda industry lobbying organization that opposes virtually every public health measure being considered to reduce obesity.

Amy Myrdal Miller, MS, RDN, FAND: Amy Myrdal Miller has also gone so far as to actually promote soda consumption. She is not listed as a paid consultant of Coca-Cola, but does consult with "a variety of food and beverage clients." Moreover, she is listed as a paid consultant to the American Beverage Association, a soda industry lobbying organization that opposes virtually every public health measure being considered to reduce obesity. 

Sylvia Meléndez Klinger, MS, RD: Sylvia Klinger has also written articles downplaying the importance of avoiding soda consumption. A recent article completely hides the fact that she is a paid consultant of Coca-Cola. Thus, she not only has a severe conflict of interest that has the perception of biasing her opinions, but she is not readily disclosing this conflict. Moreover, she is listed as a paid consultant to the American Beverage Association, a soda industry lobbying organization that opposes virtually every public health measure being considered to reduce obesity.

Rosanne Rust, MS, RDN, LDN: Rosanne Rust has also recommended soda consumption, while at the same time hiding the fact that she is a paid consultant of Coca-Cola. Thus, she not only has a severe conflict of interest that has the perception of biasing her opinions, but she is not readily disclosing this conflict. Moreover, she is listed as a paid consultant to the American Beverage Association, a soda industry lobbying organization that opposes virtually every public health measure being considered to reduce obesity.

Neva Cochran, MS, RDN, LD: Neva Cochran also downplays the problems with soda consumption (even diet soda is linked to obesity) by promoting diet soda consumption. At the same time, she hides the fact that she is listed as a paid consultant to the American Beverage Association, a soda industry lobbying organization that opposes virtually every public health measure being considered to reduce obesity. Thus, she not only has a severe conflict of interest that has the perception of biasing her opinions, but she is not readily disclosing this conflict.

The Rest of the Story

This is right out of the Big Tobacco playbook. For many years, the tobacco companies paid a group of researchers to write articles downplaying the health effects of smoking and opposing public policies that would reduce tobacco consumption. The goal of this effort was to make it appear that these were independent, objective scientists who had come to the unbiased conclusion that smoking was not particularly harmful. The truth was that these scientists were on the tobacco payroll, their opinions were heavily biased, and these severe conflicts of interest were often hidden from the public.

The soda companies are now doing the same thing. There is a network of dieticians who are essentially being paid off to express opinions in which they downplay the role of the soda industry in the obesity epidemic, question the link between soda consumption and weight gain, and oppose public health policies that would reduce obesity by lowering soda consumption.

All of these dieticians are also consulting for the American Beverage Association, which we showed in our paper is an industry-funded group that vigorously lobbies against virtually all national, state, and local public health policies supported by the health community to address the obesity problem.

The rest of the story is that these dieticians are essentially paid hacks of the soda industry. Just like the tobacco industry hacks who were discredited many years ago, it is time that these soda company hacks be exposed to the public. These are not objective, independent scientists who happen to be expressing opinions. This is a paid and coordinated campaign by the soda industry to undermine the public's appreciation of the health consequences of soda consumption, to divert attention away from the soda industry's role in the obesity epidemic, and to create opposition to policies intended to reduce soda consumption.

While I was surprised by many of our findings on soda company sponsorship, I am frankly shocked to see that a group of dieticians would allow themselves to be used by the soda industry as hacks like this. In my opinion, this defiles the profession of dietetics.

While the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics has rightfully decided to discontinue taking money from soda companies, it is pathetic to see that a group of supposed public health practitioners are allowing themselves to be used as paid hacks of the soda industry and that in many cases they are hiding these financial relationships.

I am not really blaming the soda companies for pursuing these sponsorships and these consulting arrangements. It is actually a brilliant strategy. It worked for Big Tobacco and it is working wonders for the soda companies. But Coca-Cola and PepsiCo are not in the business of public health. Their job is to sell soda, and these sponsorships and consulting arrangements help them to do that. Their job is to sell soda and I can't really blame them for using the most effective marketing strategies available to do that.

However, dieticians are supposed to be in the business of public health. They are not in the business of marketing soft drinks. It is an unacceptable conflict for them to be taking money from soda companies while pretending to give the public objective and unbiased information about nutrition science. That's just not possible when you're being paid off by the soda industry.

It's time for everyone in the public health community - both organizations and individuals - to stop enabling the soda companies to use them as pawns in their grand marketing strategy by rejecting soda company funding.

ADDENDUM

According to an article published on October 6 by the New York Times, Coca-Cola has discontinued its practice of paying scientists, and the American Beverage Association has at least temporarily suspended its payment of scientific experts pending further review. 

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