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 and inherited mutations, pollution, and...okay, yes, tobacco causing 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:

  • From 1989 to 2008, the percentage of children consuming sugary drinks increased from 79% to 91%. These beverages account for about 10%, on average, of kids' caloric intake.
  • Sugary drinks are the single largest source of calories in teens' diets (apparently narrowly beating out pizza).
  • 25% of American adults get at least 200 calories from sugary drinks each day.

Sugar-rich sodas have been fingered as particularly dangerous by the health research community, not because their sugar is any different or worse than the sugar in other foods, but because they are so widely and frequently consumed. People don't eat birthday cake or ice cream every single day, or at every meal. But lots of people, and especially far too many children, drink soda at every meal. It's not a lost cause, though, as there are many policy options available, and states and municipalities have put several of them before their voters.  Raising taxes on sugary drinks, banning the sale of extravagantly large servings, or keeping soda machines out of schools are just a few of the public policy tools that have been proposed to discourage (not forbid, not ban, just reduce) consumption.

So if Coca-Cola maintains that their products are not a problem if consumed in moderation, and the company cares about the health of its customers, such policies should not be a problem right? Well, no. These and many similar policies, as O'Connor notes, have been opposed by the trade associations that represent the interests of the beverage industry in state capitals and Washington D.C.

It is this kind of talking out of both sides of the corporate mouth that could lead someone to think that the charitable giving of companies like Coca-Cola is actually designed to sow doubt about scientific evidence, distract from the clear implications of that evidence, and provide ammunition against policies designed to reduce the health impacts of their products. And that's why, when the details of Coca-Cola's donations were made public recently, many of the beneficiaries announced that they intend to sever their ties to Coca-Cola and will not be accepting funding in the future.

Hey, I get it. I direct a non-profit, after all. Raising money is hard, and places like the American Academy of Pediatrics can do a lot of good with the money they get from Coca-Cola. But if the hidden cost is helping Coca-Cola play fast and loose with scientific evidence, it's a devil's bargain.