Thursday, April 25, 2013

Why I Oppose McDonald's and Coca-Cola's Sponsorship of the Canadian Obesity Network Summit

Among this year's sponsors of the Canadian Obesity Network's Scientific Summit are Dairy Farmer's of Canada ($30,000), McDonald's ($10,000), Coca-Cola ($10,000), food industry front group Food and Consumer Products of Canada ($10,000), and the Canadian Beverage Association ($5,000). I'm sure it won't come as a surprise to any reader here that I think these partnerships are ill advised.

But first a bit in CON's defense. To be fair and clear, the Canadian Obesity Network was born out of industry and for industry, where CON's actual stated mission is,
"to act as a catalyst for addressing obesity in Canada and to foster knowledge translation, capacity building, and partnerships among stakeholders so that researchers, health professionals, policy makers, industry and other stakeholders may develop effective solutions to prevent and treat obesity."
Where I struggle today is that CON is no longer simply a networking tool.  Due to the tireless hard work of its team and members, over time, CON has become so much more than a network. Today CON serves the public, the media, and policy makers as Canada's go-to organization for opinions, ideas and support on matters pertaining to obesity's treatment, prevention and policy interventions. CON has very much become the public face of obesity in Canada, and events like the Summit and the many practical workshops CON puts on throughout the year are not simply geared for networking, but rather for education, and do undoubtedly help to steer this country's course in dealing with this issue. As a further testament to just how important CON has become to obesity policy in Canada and just how far it has grown from a simple network, if there were a federal or provincial program focused directly or indirectly on obesity that CON was not somehow involved in as an adviser or participant, I'd honestly be shocked. It's these hard earned roles outside of networking that give me pause with CON's food industry partnerships,.

While there's a great chance that most CON members would never think that they themselves might be influenced by taking money from industry or by attending food industry sponsored events, research on both food and drug industry involvement and sponsorship suggests the contrary to be true. Remember too that conflicts of interest are defined simply by the potential or the perception of a conflict. Among the many potential risks of the food industry sponsoring CON's Scientific Summit, consider whether or not reliance or acceptance of food industry dollars might impact upon CON or CON's members abilities to speak forcefully and critically on issues such as mandatory menu board calories, soda taxes, advertising bans, or cup size bans, or whether consciously or unconsciously food industry partnership and reliance will water down, limit or influence opinions therein? Unfortunately, there's no doubt these conflicts of interest sully CON and its members' reputations and scientific authority - a fact made clear to me by the many emails of concern and disdain that I've received from both individuals and organizations who independently discovered the Summit's sponsorship page and Coca-Cola and McDonald's involvement.

As for what this will buy industry - well it will literally buy them entry into the, "we're not part of the problem, we're part of the solution" club, and in turn their partnership and support of CON will be wielded to help deflect scrutiny and industry unfriendly legislation, as well as provide them with access to CON's hard earned emotional, scientific and ethical capital with which to associate their brands. In Coca-Cola's case an additional $16,000-$24,000 (numbers dependent on how many seats they're renting) their sponsorship dollars are buying them them a 90 minute infomercial to be delivered to the country's leading obesity related policy makers, researchers and clinicians by Coca-Cola vice president and chief scientific and regulatory officer Dr. Rhona Applebaum. Her talk is entitled,
"Can a Beverage Company Make a Positive Difference in the Fight Against Obesity?".
As to what Dr. Applebaum's going to say, I'm confident it'll include the position she regularly champions, that singling out sugar sweetened beverages - the largest sole source provider of calories in North America - is misguided in the fight against obesity as she states so clearly here,
"If we are really honest with ourselves, we know that no one group or sector can solve this problem alone and searching for a silver bullet that miraculously stops obesity is just not realistic. Targeting scapegoats or pointing fingers is simply a waste of energy."
Though it would seem that so long as the finger pointing isn't directed at sugar sweetened beverages and that instead it's pointed at some drop in energy expenditure, that pointing is just fine by her,

Dr. Applebaum's talk will also undoubtedly include Coca-Cola's overarching message - that the answer lies in "balancing" energy-in vs. energy-out (and likely too the purchase of artificially sweetened beverages) - that consuming their sugar laden products is dandy so long as a person exercises, and that "all calories count", meaning an oversized can of nutritionally bereft, sugar-spiked, Coca-Cola's is no better or worse for health or weight than anything else. And how Coca-Cola is spinning that message publicly is noteworthy too. Check out this recently released advertisement that details how drinking a can of Coca-Cola buys you 140 "Happy Calories" and then shows you all the fun things you'll be able to do consequent to drinking them,

Or this recent piece where they launched an assault on chairs (yes, chairs),

And here's betting Dr. Applebaum doesn't bring up the multi-year advertising campaign specifically targeting children that Coca-Cola announced yesterday which will include co-branding with their 16oz and 20oz bottles.

Were CON simply a networking organization, while I still would be unhappy with food industry sponsorship, I likely wouldn't have felt compelled to pen this post. But given the important and substantial role CON has so rightly earned for itself as a leader in Canadian research, policy, education and discourse on obesity, I think these sponsorships sell short CON, its membership and the public.

[When writing this post I emailed CON's scientific director and hopefully still my friend Arya Sharma and invited him to write a post on why he supports food industry sponsorship. I'd encourage you to read his posting too so you can hear the other side to this argument. Click here to read Arya's thoughtful post.]