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Are we selling our souls? Novel aspects of the presence in academic conferences of brands linked to ill health
  1. Stuart W Flint1,2
  1. 1Academy of Sport and Physical Activity, Faculty of Health and Wellbeing, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK
  2. 2Centre for Sport and Exercise Science, Sheffield Hallam University, Sheffield, UK
  1. Correspondence to
    Dr Stuart W Flint, Academy of Sport and Physical Activity, Faculty of Health and Wellbeing, Sheffield Hallam University, A211 Collegiate Hall, Collegiate Crescent, Sheffield, South Yorkshire S10 2BP, UK; S.Flint{at}shu.ac.uk

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There is evidence linking unhealthy food and drink consumption to ill health such as diabetes.1–3 Counterintuitively, research demonstrating these links has been presented at national and international health promotion conferences sponsored by companies that manufacture and sell unhealthy food and drink; primarily conferences related to public health, sport and exercise, nutrition and dietetics.4 ,5 For example, Flint4 reported the presence of The Coca-Cola Co. at the European College of Sport Sciences (ECSS) conference in 2014, while in the same year Hérick de Sá5 also noted that they were a sponsor at the Fifth International Congress on Physical Activity and Public Health. The Coca-Cola Co. have also been a yearly sponsor of the National Conference on Health Disparities in the USA. It seems unfathomable that such companies were present at health-related conferences where, for example within the ECSS mission statement, it is specified that the purpose includes the application of sport science knowledge to sports competition, performance, improving health, well-being, fitness and social relationships,6 and much of the research presented at the conference aimed to improve health and well-being. The Coca-Cola Co. were a Gold sponsor, an exhibitor and sponsored three streams of oral presentations at ECSS 2014. Likewise, McDonalds Corp. and other food companies have a history of sponsoring nutrition research and conferences. For example, in 2014 McDonalds Corp was a Gold sponsor at the California Dietetics Association conference in Pomona, USA. Furthermore, food and drink companies that produce unhealthy products such as McDonalds Corp. and The Coca-Cola Co. have been major sponsors of sports events such as the Olympics. More recently, these companies have increasingly come to be seen in academic circles as trying to promote a more positive image of their brands. On a conscious and non-conscious level, these companies are attempting to influence public opinion as well as reach a wider consumer pool.

Undermining health-related research

The question is why are producers of unhealthy food and drink aligning themselves with health conferences? The direct impact of sponsoring conferences is an unlikely reason, as these partnerships will not lead to greater product sales. The more likely indirect reason for aligning their brand with health-related conferences is to improve brand image. The accumulation of empirical evidence and greater restrictions on the marketing of such brands due to the association with ill health has led to the development of policies for responsible marketing such as The Coca-Cola Co.'s Responsible Marketing Policy in 2014. Concomitantly, the increasing presence of such companies at health-related conferences, and their sponsorship of health-related research such as research relating to exercise, nutrition and obesity by leading researchers, is likely to be an attempt to reduce the growing perception associating their brands with detrimental health impacts. Thus, sponsorship of health-related research and conferences appears to be a vehicle for these companies to reduce and in some instances modify the growing public awareness of the association between their products and ill health. For example, a partnership was formed in 2009 between the American Academy of Family Physicians and The Coca-Cola Co. to educate consumers about healthy food and drink consumption including the company's own products.7 Recent figures released by The Coca-Cola Co. since 2010 demonstrate that the company has spent over $100M sponsoring health-related research, partnerships and community programmes.8 This includes a $100k sponsorship of an ‘Active Living and Sports Dietetics Program’ at Purdue University in 2013, a $300k gift for a ‘health active lifestyles and energetics endowed research fund’, $100k to Auburn University Foundation for an ‘obesity prevention’ partnership in 2010, and a $200k partnership with the University of South Carolina for a ‘school-based programme to promote physical activity and good nutrition’. While historically partnerships between industry and the scientific and medical community have existed for some time they appear to have become more evident in recent years.9 ,10

The food and drink industry is big business and through continued links to academic institutions, experts and politicians, companies play a major role in policy development.11 Indeed, manufacturers of unhealthy food and drink linked to obesity and ill health have been reported to fund public health experts and Government funded organisations and campaigns.11 For example, the UK Government Department of Health's Public Health Responsibility Deal12 has been criticised for engaging with such companies, The Coca-Cola Co., for example, which became a partner in 2012. These counterintuitive partnerships, where the primary objectives of the partners are not aligned, may represent a conflict of interest which needs to be monitored and reviewed overtime. Consequently, and in line with concerns raised by Gilmore et al,13 it is pertinent to ask what justification there is for producers of unhealthy food and drink to have a top seat at the public health policymaking table. Since the New Responsibility Deal,12 partnerships of this nature and the involvement of such companies in health promotion activities such as funding and sponsorship of health-related initiatives, research and conferences, and community events, has become increasingly evident.4 ,8 ,11 ,13 ,14

Ethically, it appears that many health-related researchers and conference organisers need to re-consider their inclusion/exclusion criteria for sponsors and exhibitors. It is preposterous to think that health-related researchers and conference organisers believe it is acceptable to have manufacturers of unhealthy food and drink sponsor and attend their conferences, and once there, exhibit products that have a significant role to play in ill health. For researchers who do not align themselves with companies responsible for unhealthy food and drink consumption but who present at conferences sponsored by them, organisers are performing a disservice to researchers who are striving to improve awareness, treatment, management and prevention of ill health, by aligning them with these companies. Thus, admirable work is being undermined by researchers and conference organisers who appear to sell out to these manufacturers of unhealthy food and drink.

Conclusion and future directions

Companies that produce unhealthy food and drink should be prevented from sponsoring any event that promotes good health. Positive steps have been taken in society to remove the presence of unhealthy food and drink brands from television programmes targeting children and to prevent the owners of such brands from sponsoring football teams in Europe. However, this is insufficient and greater action is warranted. The presence of these brands may go beyond manipulation of public opinion, where research themes and policy become influenced. It should be noted that academic conferences and research are part of a myriad of sources that contribute to knowledge generation and dissemination, and that the tactics used by food and drink manufacturers is more widespread. These tactics, that are designed to influence public opinion, enhance public relations and obstruct science, have been observed and it is pertinent to intervene to prevent poor awareness and distorted understanding that ultimately may adversely influence healthy consumption.

Like any business, the primary goal of companies that produce unhealthy food and drink is to increase or in some instances maintain sales. Health-related researchers and conference organisers should not be so naïve and should be aware that their actions are likely to contribute to improved public opinion of unhealthy food and drink brands as well as to undermine pioneering empirical research by academics who present their research at these events. This increasing unethical partnership is a growing concern among the academic community. The presence of unhealthy food and drink brands is contradictory to the mission statements of many health-related conferences and professional society events. Consequently, the values that provide the foundation of health-related conferences and events are a risk if the presence of such brands is allowed to continue. Thus, should companies that produce unhealthy food and drink be prevented from participating in conferences that in many instances are providing the platform to present evidence of the links between their products and ill health? Should health-related researchers consider their allegiance with academic conferences, societies and professional bodies that are seen to be a partner of such companies? It might be argued that these hypocritical actions may serve to devalue and impact the credibility of health-related research.

References

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Footnotes

  • Twitter Follow Stuart Flint at @flint_stuart

  • Competing interests None declared.

  • Provenance and peer review Commissioned; externally peer reviewed.