Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Why I'm Resigning my Membership in The Obesity Society

For those of you who don't know, The Obesity Society (TOS) is, according to them,
"North America's premier scientific organization devoted to understanding obesity"
And I wholeheartedly agree, they really are, which is why I'm anything but happy to be resigning my membership.

I've been a member for the past decade, and I do my utmost to attend their annual meeting (now known as Obesity Week).

Paying to be a member of a professional organization, to me at least, means that you believe the organization's mission and methods to be congruent with your own, and sadly, that's no longer the case with me and TOS.

My concerns began in early 2013. That was when TOS published their, "Guidelines for Accepting Funds from External Sources" position paper. In it TOS,
"expressly eliminates all forms of evaluation or judgment of the funding source"
and instead,
"TOS chooses to focus its ethical mission on transparency in disclosing the sources of funding, clear stipulations outlining our commitment to the ethical use of funds, and a commitment to non-influence of the funding sources over the scientific aspects of funded projects and TOS as a whole."
Lastly they stipulated,
"TOS should seek funding from as wide a variety of donors as possible."
Many, myself included, felt that without explicitly saying so, these guidelines were designed as a means to open the door for TOS to seek and take money from the food industry.

Shortly thereafter TOS struck their, "Food Industry Outreach Task Force", which seems to have morphed into their "Food Industry Engagement Council", the most recent meeting of which included representatives from Kellogg's, PepsiCo, Nestlé, Dr. Pepper and Ocean Spray. There appears to be no doubt that TOS meant what they said back in early 2013.

To be clear, I'm all for dialogue, debate, and discussion with the food industry, but I just can't support taking their money, formally working with them on joint projects, or giving them votes at tables. To be sure, in these difficult fiscal times, for public health organizations, the benefit of food industry partnerships is funding. But partnerships of course need to benefit both parties, and for the food industry, partnering with health organizations has much to offer. Public health partnerships provide the food industry with high gloss brand polish, they may lead to direct or indirect co-branded sales, they may confer undeserved positive emotional brand associations, they may silence or soften industry or product criticism, they may provide industry with ammunition to fight industry unfriendly legislative efforts, and they necessitate that the partnered public health group water down public health messaging that may conflict with their partnered private industries' bottom lines.

Put plainly, a public company cannot invest in a group, program, or intervention that in turn would ultimately serve to decrease sales more than not being involved in that same group, program, or intervention. Doing so would not only be an affront to their shareholders, it'd be grounds for their lawsuits.

Let’s hope I’m wrong in thinking history won’t look kindly on these partnerships, that public-health efforts won't be hindered by them, and that instead I’ll look back one day and think I made much ado about nothing, but until then, while I'll still likely see you at Obesity Week, this is why I'll no longer be sporting a "TOS Member" ribbon on my badge.

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