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Coca-Cola Partnership Hits a Nerve

Elyas Bakhtiari, for HealthLeaders Media, November 5, 2009

Once again, news about a partnership between physicians and private industry has sparked controversy in the medical community. I'm not referring to the physician who claims he was fired for raising concerns about an inappropriate relationship between Lahey Clinic and Medtronic; or the 15 states that are suing Amgen, Inc. because they think the biotech giant provided kickbacks to medical providers to boost sales.

In fact, this time the controversy isn't related to drug or device companies at all.

A number of family practice physicians are upset with the American Academy of Family Physicians for partnering with Coca-Cola Co., the world's No.1 soft-drink maker, to develop consumer education content about beverage sweeteners and other health topics.

The health information will appear on familydoctor.org, and the AAFP will retain complete control over developing the content, says Douglas E. Henley, M.D, FAAFP, executive vice president and CEO for AAFP. That content will be pulled from evidence-based guidelines, and when appropriate will point out the health hazards of sugary beverages, he says.

"We've been asking members to not rush to judgment and hold us accountable for content we develop, understanding that's two or three months away. We believe that we can manage this relationship appropriately," he adds.

But it's not necessarily the content development that has drawn physicians' ire. Coca-Cola provided a six-figure grant to the AAFP, and not for nothing. The soft-drink company can brand itself, within strict limits, as a partner with familydoctor.org, and that association with a physician organization will be good for its image at a time when sodas and surgery beverages are under fire for contributing to America's obesity epidemic.

The AAFP insists that the alliance does not equate to an endorsement of Coca-Cola products (and Henley reminded me that the company makes more than just sugary beverages). But will patients be able to see the distinction? Some may be a little confused by the mixed messages when physicians are telling them to avoid too many sugary beverages for health reasons.

The dust up was serious enough that more than 20 physicians from Contra Costa Health Services in Martinez, CA, made a public show of resigning from AAFP in protest of the deal, and a handful of doctors have started a Facebook petition to end the partnership.

"I am appalled and ashamed of this partnership between Coca-Cola and the AAFP," said William Walker, MD, who had been an AAFP member for 25 years, in a press release. "How can any organization that claims to promote public health join forces with a company that promotes products that put our children at risk for obesity, heart disease and early death?"

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