The beverage giants Coca-Cola and PepsiCo have given millions of dollars to nearly 100 prominent health groups in recent years, while simultaneously spending millions to defeat public health legislation that would reduce Americans’ soda intake, according to public health researchers.
The findings, published on Monday in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, document the beverage industry’s deep financial ties to the health community over the past five years, as part of a strategy to silence health critics and gain unlikely allies against soda regulations.
The study’s authors, Michael Siegel, a professor at the Boston University school of public health, and Daniel Aaron, a student at Boston University’s medical school, scoured public records including news releases, newspaper databases, lobbying reports, the medical literature and information released by the beverage giants themselves. While some of the incidents cited in the study already have been reported by news organizations, the medical journal report is the first to take a comprehensive look at the industry’s strategy of donating to health organizations while at the same time lobbying against public health measures. The study tracked industry donations and lobbying spending from 2011 through 2015, at a time when many cities were mulling soda taxes or other regulations to combat obesity.
“We wanted to look at what these companies really stand for,” said Mr. Aaron, the study’s co-author. “And it looks like they are not helping public health at all — in fact they’re opposing it almost across the board, which calls these sponsorships into question.”
Mr. Aaron said that the industry donations created “clear-cut conflicts of interest” for the health groups that accepted them.
The report found a number of instances in which influential health groups accepted beverage industry donations and then backed away from supporting soda taxes or remained noticeably silent about the initiatives.
In one instance cited in the study, the nonprofit group Save the Children, which had actively supported soda tax campaigns in several states, did an about face and withdrew its support in 2010. The group had accepted a $5 million grant from Pepsi and was seeking a major grant from Coke to help pay for its health and education programs for children.
Responding to the new research, Save the Children said, in a statement, that the group in 2010 had decided to focus on early childhood education, and that its decision to stop supporting soda taxes “was unrelated to any corporate support that Save the Children received.”
When New York proposed a ban on extra-large sodas in 2012, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics cited “conflicting research” and didn’t support the effort. The academy accepted $525,000 in donations from Coke in 2012. The following year it took a $350,000 donation from the company.
The academy said it no longer has a sponsorship relationship with the beverage firms.
The N.A.A.C.P. and the Hispanic Federation have publicly opposed anti-soda initiatives despite disproportionately high rates of obesity in black and Hispanic communities. Coke made more than $1 million in donations to the N.A.A.C.P. between 2010 and 2015, and more than $600,000 to the Hispanic Federation between 2012 and 2015. The groups did not respond to requests for comment.
“The beverage industry is using corporate philanthropy to undermine public health measures,” said Kelly D. Brownell, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, who was not involved in the new research.
The American Diabetes Association accepted $140,000 from the company between 2012 and 2014. The American Heart Association received more than $400,000 from Coke between 2010 and 2015. And the National Institutes of Health received nearly $2 million from Coke between 2010 and 2014.
In a statement, the heart association said the group is “leading efforts to reduce consumption of sugary drinks,” and the group has advocated for increased taxes on sugary drinks.
“To achieve our goals, we must engage a wide variety of food and beverage companies to be part of the solution,” the statement said. The soda sponsorship does not have “ any influence on our science and the public policy positions we advocate for.”
Coke and Pepsi referred questions about the study to their trade group, the American Beverage Association.
“We believe our actions in communities and the marketplace are contributing to addressing the complex challenge of obesity,” the beverage association said. “We stand strongly for our need, and right, to partner with organizations that strengthen our communities.”
The beverage association said it disagreed with public health advocates “on discriminatory and regressive taxes and policies on our products.”
The New York Times last year reported that Coke had paid for scientific research that downplayed the link between sugary drinks and obesity. After that article was published, the beverage giant released a database showing that since 2010 it had spent more than $120 million on academic research and partnerships with health organizations involved in curbing obesity.
From 2011 to 2015, Coke spent on average more than $6 million per year lobbying against public health measures aimed at curbing soda consumption, according to data from the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Pepsi spent about $3 million per year during that period, and the American Beverage Association spent more than $1 million each year, the study found.
In 2009 alone, when the government proposed a federal soda tax to curb obesity that would help finance health care reform, Coke, Pepsi and the American Beverage Association spent a combined $38 million lobbying against the measure, which ultimately failed.
When the mayor of Philadelphia proposed a soda tax in 2010, the beverage industry offered $10 million to the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia if the tax proposal was dropped. The City Council voted down the measure, and the beverage association later made the donation.
Philadelphia did ultimately impose a soda tax this year. The beverage industry filed a lawsuit in September, calling the tax illegal. The industry also is spending millions on advertising campaigns against soda taxes that are on the ballot in at least four cities this November – three in Northern California, and one in Boulder, Colo.
Marion Nestle, a professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, said the paper shows that soda companies “want to have it both ways — appear as socially responsible corporate citizens and lobby against public health measures every chance they get.”