Advice about soft drinks and health from one of the nation's largest doctors groups will soon be brought to you by Coke.
The American Academy of Family Physicians has prompted outcry and lost members over its new six-figure alliance with the Coca-Cola Co. The deal will fund educational materials about soft drinks for the academy's consumer health and wellness Web site, www.FamilyDoctor.org.
Academy CEO Dr. Douglas Henley said Wednesday that the deal won't influence the group's public health messages, and that the company will have no control over editorial content. He said the new online information will include research linking soft drinks with obesity and will focus on sugar-free alternatives.
But critics say the Coke deal will water down the advice.
"Coca-Cola, like other sodas, causes enormous suffering and premature death by increasing the risks of obesity, diabetes, heart attacks, gout, and cavities," Harvard University nutrition expert Dr. Walter Willett said in an e-mail.
He said the academy "should be a loud critic of these products and practices, but by signing with Coke their voice has almost surely been muzzled."
Dr. Henry Blackburn, a University of Minnesota public health specialist, said the deal "will inevitably have a chilling effect on the focus of their message in regards to sweet drinks."
Coca-Cola spokeswoman Diana Garza Ciarlante said that kind of criticism "misses the point of the partnership which is to provide education based on sound science."
Dr. William Walker, public health officer for Contra Costa County near San Francisco, likened the alliance with ads decades ago in which physicians said mild cigarettes are safe.
Walker has been a member of the academy for 25 years but quit last week. He said 20 other doctors who work with his local medical practice also quit because of the Coke deal.
In an announcement last month, the academy, based in Kansas, said the new Coca-Cola-funded educational material will be posted online in January.
The idea is "to develop educational materials to help consumers make informed decisions so they can include the products they love in a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle," the academy's president-elect, Dr. Lori Heim, said at the time.
The American Academy of Pediatrics received similar criticism seven years ago when it allowed an infant formula maker's logo to appear on copies of that group's breast-feeding guide.
And the American Medical Association faced harsh reaction more than a decade ago with a plan to endorse Sunbeam appliances without testing them. Criticism forced the AMA to abandon that deal.
The Coke deal is not the only corporate alliance for the family physicians group. In 2005 it received funding from McDonalds for a fitness program. And its consumer Web site includes advertising for a variety of products, including deli meats and air freshener.
Henley said the Coke deal is worth six figures but he and a Coca-Cola spokeswoman declined to elaborate.
In a protest letter to Henley, 22 health specialists and activists questioned the safety of artificial sweeteners and urged the academy to abandon the deal and speak out against sugary drinks "in the strongest language."
Henley said the academy regrets the resignations and hopes other members will not "rush to judgment" before seeing the new content.
Coca-Cola is among several corporate contributors to the American Academy of Family Physicians Foundation, a separate philanthropic group. These contributors include many drug companies, McDonalds, PepsiCo and a beef industry group. Henley said the academy is in talks with other foundation contributors to fund other materials for the group, but he declined to say which ones.
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