The Too Sweet Smell of Charity

When is a charitable donation not a charitable donation? Well, I suppose all money comes with strings. But at what point do such strings—or maybe even the appearance of strings— nudge a donation out of the category of charity and into that of undue influence?

In an interesting article in The New York Times science section this week, “Coke Spends Lavishly to Sugar-Coat Science,” Anahad O’Connor explored the sticky implications of the $120 million that the Coca-Cola company recently reported donating to a series of extremely reputable non-profit organizations including the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American College of Cardiology, the American Cancer Society, and the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. Both the soda maker and the recipients firmly declare that the donations do not influence the policies or recommendations of the organizations that get the money. But no one can miss the disconnect between the rapidly accumulating scientific evidence that sugary sodas contribute significantly to the nation’s rising obesity rates and donations from the pre-eminent marketer of those sodas to organizations that people trust to give them objective information about health and diet.

Here’s the thing: Coca-Cola is throwing money off a parade float that has been rolled out before—most notably by the tobacco and fossil fuel industries. It’s a classic, and extremely effective tactic. At its most benign, the strategy of giving lots of money to organizations that are ostensibly on the opposite side of your cause (polluters to environmental groups, tobacco companies to cancer researchers) is simple PR. “What do you mean we hate the environment? Look at all the money we give to [pick a cause]: Getting kids outside! Rescuing stranded whales! Planting trees! We love the environment!” In Coca-Cola’s case, O’Connor reports that community organizations—specifically the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, the NAACP, and the Hispanic Federation—also received generous donations. Would a company that didn’t care about children’s health do that? You could look at these donations almost as a sort of tax on making or selling something that has an unsavory reputation of one kind or another, in Coke’s case, a tax on the fact that they make soda, and soda is bad for kids.

Sometimes, though, the donations serve a more subtle purpose: by giving enough money to have the company’s name associated with a reputable, evidence-based organization, the corporations lend weight to their own most-benign-possible-but-seriously-misleading, interpretation of scientific evidence.

In the case of Coca-Cola, there is a mountain of evidence that Americans’ colossal consumption of sugar contributes to obesity, diabetes, and a host of other health problems.  According to the USDA Economic Research Service, sugar and sweeteners account for 36–40% of the average American’s carbohydrate consumption. But the official stance of Coca-Cola and other marketers is that sugary drinks are not solely responsible for the rise in sugar consumption, that the sugar in these drinks is no different than the sugar in other sweetened products, and that if people consume sugary beverages in moderation, they can be part of a healthy diet.

These statements, while not technically false, are classic examples of the “Hey, look over there!” tactic. If you can put your unhealthful product into a long list of other things that have the same effect, (for example, viruses.inherited mutations, pollution, and…okay, yes, tobacco cause cancer) your product/action just doesn't seem so bad. Banning smoking, this list proves, isn’t going to eliminate cancer, so people who want to take away your cigarettes are just extremists. Along the same lines, Coca-Cola’s moderation argument breaks down into: "Birthday cake! Ice Cream! They have sugar! Are you health nuts going to ban them too?"

Unfortunately, the truth of the matter is that soda, energy drinks, and other sugary beverages account for a big chunk of our sugar consumption—considerably more than cake and ice cream.

Here are some sobering numbers from the Harvard School of Public Health’s Nutrition Source:

NCSE Executive Director Ann Reid
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Ann Reid is the Executive Director of NCSE.
We can't afford to lose any time when it comes to the future of science education.

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