Tuesday, August 28, 2012

Do You Want to be an Unwitting Coca-Cola Spokesperson?

Perhaps all you need to do is to casually work with them or even simply write something publicly that can be taken out of context.

Just ask my friend Dr. Arya Sharma. Over the years in his role as the Scientific Director of the Canadian Obesity Network he's had the occasion to sit down with Big Beverage.  He's also blogged before about the surprising finding in a Canadian study that did not demonstrate an association between sugared sweetened beverages and obesity in children (except for in 6-11 year old boys and  that the study of course relied on dietary recall which with children and adolescents specifically has been demonstrated to be not even remotely reliable).  Now I'm not sure whether it was consequent to his face to face meetings, or to his seemingly soda friendly blog post, but Dr. Sharma's "views" were recently used as a center piece of Coca-Cola's angry letter to Ottawa's City Councillors and Mayor.

(If you're not sure what letter I'm talking about, you can read my post from yesterday)

So how did Coca-Cola leverage Dr. Sharma? With this paragraph:
"Dr. Arya Sharma, MD/PhD, FRCPC, a leading Canadian obesity expert and chair of the Canadian Obesity Network, recommends Canadians focus on the total amount of calories they consume and not target one particular source of calories when managing their weight".
So does Dr. Sharma think public health departments shouldn't encourage a decreased consumption of sugar-sweetened beverages?

Seemed doubtful to me. While I know that Dr. Sharma does believe that it would be folly to blame society's weight woes purely on sugar-sweetened beverages, I also know that if calories do indeed count, and given sugared soda's complete and total lack of nutritive value, they'd certainly be a fair target for intervention. And that's putting aside the fact that sugared-soda is just as unhealthy a beverage for folks without weight to lose as it is for those with.  And guess what?  When I called Dr. Sharma to ask whether or not my characterization of his take on sugar-sweetened beverages was fair he readily agreed that it was and he also told me that he was entirely unaware of his use in Coca-Cola's letter writing campaign.

In case my positions aren't clear, at the end of the day I think Coca-Cola is well within its rights to try to market its sugar-laden beverages - that's literally their job. I also think it's well within public health officials' rights to, in varying capacities, discourage soda's consumption - their literal jobs. And lastly I think that Dr. Sharma's involuntary involvement in Coca-Cola's letter writing campaign is a great example of the risks health professionals face if they try to work "with" the food industry and why you might want to think twice before you sit down at their table.