HSPH Professor Criticizes AAFP

The Coca-Cola Company offered the American Academy of Family Physicians a six-figure grant through the AAFP’s new Consumer Alliance program, but a Harvard School of Public Health professor has called for the group to return the money.

In an open letter to the AAFP last week, HSPH Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition Walter C. Willett offered the Academy use of the School of Public Health’s “Nutrition Source” Web site, encouraging them to link to HSPH’s content rather than using the Coca-Cola funds.

The grant has been earmarked for the creation of nutritional education content on beverage choices for FamilyDoctor.org, the AAFP’s health resource Web site.

“[This corporate partnership] is horrible, because really what Coca-Cola’s buying is silence,” said Willett, who chairs the HSPH Department of Nutrition, in an interview Friday.

AAFP’s partnership with Coca-Cola has generated significant criticism. Many physicians and nutritionists have publicly demanded that the AAFP return the grant, and some members have resigned from the organization in protest.

Douglas E. Henley, CEO and executive vice president of the AAFP, said on Friday that the organization intends to separate funding sources from the content they support, adding, “There’s a thick, rigid firewall between the two” Henley said. He emphasized that the web content would be based on peer-reviewed literature, summarized by internal AAFP staff and outside medical experts.

“We certainly intend to point to the literature that links sugared beverages to other health conditions like obesity, dental care, and diabetes,” he said.

Henley said he appreciated Willett’s letter, but the AAFP has no plans to return Coca-Cola’s grant.

“Hold us accountable for the unbiased content we intend to develop, rather than just rushing to judgment on the partnership,” he said.

The Nutrition Source, created without industry funding, is maintained by HSPH faculty members, a dietician, and a science writer. A section entitled “Choosing Healthy Beverages” offers advice on controlling sugared beverage consumption.

Willett has publicly advocated against the distribution of high-calorie, high-sugar soft drinks in schools for years.

“Sugared beverages are at the top of the list [of threats to national health], along with smoking,” he said.

HSPH Professor of Epidemiology and Nutrition Meir J. Stampfer was unaware of Willet’s letter, but co-signed an anti-Consumer Alliance letter addressed to Henley from the Center for Science in the Public Interest.

“It’s clear that [Coca-Cola’s] intention is to influence the marketing for sugared beverage products,” Stampfer said.

The Coca-Cola Company could not be reached for comment. physicians and nutritionists have publicly demanded that the AAFP return the grant, and some members have resigned from the organization in protest.

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