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Conflict of Interest – Corporate Sponsorship of Health Charities and Organizations

December 16, 2009



Corporate sponsorship of non-profits has been a source of valuable income for charities and other organizations for quite a while. Often non-profits rely heavily on this kind of income.  A non-profit corporation is of course formed to provide a program or service that is of public benefit, while a for-profit corporation exists to earn and distribute profits to its shareholders.  Non-profits also are formed to be able to accept tax-deductible donations that benefit the donor.

When a for-profit entity funnels money through a non-profit with a corporate sponsorship, is that corporation using it solely for the tax benefits, is it purely philanthropic, is it an attempt to buy advertising, or a combination of factors?

In its report, “Lifting the Veil of Secrecy, Corporate Support for Health and Environmental Professional Associations, Charities, and Industry Front Groups”, the Center for Science in the Public Interest has found that corporations seemed to have also found a more powerful voice through the organization’s experts than just on their own.

As one advertising company stated, “Gatorade uses the expert opinion of a university PhD—much better than just having someone from the company say it—to encourage more people to consume its sports drink.”

When organizations like the American Academy of Pediatric Dentistry, accepted $1 million from Coca-Cola, the public immediately recognized the idiosyncrasy and obvious conflict of interest. How could the AAPD accept money from a corporation that manufactures and whose sole purposes is to make a profit off of a product they condemned as being a significant source of dental caries?

That question is answered by the fact that non-profits such as the AAPD rely heavily on the donations and attention that major corporate sponsors bring to them. Even though promises are made by both parties that there are no strings attached and that no favors have been made, it is clear that the services provided by the non-profit will indeed be altered to assure the continued monetary support by such corporations.

How does this affect you and me, average Americans that are trying to live a healthy lifestyle by trying to keep active and eat well? CSPI reports that:

Medical-professional organizations and health charities are among the biggest recipients of industry funding.

This means that most of these health organization services, whether they provide educational materials, research or support to their members, will in some way reflect the needs and agendas of their biggest sponsors. This may be in the form of outright endorsements of products or in the form of silence. It may appear in the form of inaccurate research or outright lies. And this means that the organizations you rely on for accurate scientific health and fitness related facts may not be giving you good information.

Examples of such conflict of interests abound. Do you think you are getting good information from the American Dietetic Association when its fact sheet on “Nutrition on the Go” was sponsored by McDonald’s?  Do you think the American Cancer Society is going to tell you about the dangers of pollution when it gets funds from companies like Dupont and BP America? Although many of these non-profits are able to maintain their original vision and purpose and provide valid services and information while receiving corporate sponsorships, others were created by corporations themselves, a fact not often revealed or known by the general public. The American Council for Fitness and Nutrition, which is funded by food manufactures, is just one example. There are also many political organizations, think tanks, universities and environmental groups funded by corporations to promote their agendas.

Further proof that corporations and non-profits work for each other in ways that demonstrate obvious conflict of interest is that many non-profits actively participate in promoting the corporation’s for-profit activities, even when it seems to contradict what their organization promotes. One example is the fact that the past president of the American Dietetic Association, is an “expert” resource at “The Beverage Institute For Health & Wellness”, a marketing web-page owned by the Coca-Cola company which is disguised as a “a valued resource for health professionals and others worldwide on the science, safety and benefits of beverages and their ingredients”. She has participated in debunking an article by the American Heart Association regarding the association of diet sodas with heart disease, even though she is not an expert in cardiology. She also has written for Cargill, Inc. which has close ties with Coca-Cola and Monsanto, all major players in the sugar industry.  Coca-Cola and Monsanto are major contributors to the American Dietetic Association. The ADA, interestingly enough, is reluctant to make any claims that high fructose corn syrup is a unique contributor to obesity despite many studies that state it is a causative factor in metabolic syndrome. In fact, one such article is written by a member of the Corn Refiners Association Independent Scientific Advisory Panel, once again pointing out a very blatant conflict of interest.

Another medical professional that crosses the lines between corporations and non-profits is a doctor who is a consultant for the Corn Refiner’s Association (HFCS), ConAgra (major food company and donor to the ADA) and a contributor to the Journal of the American Dietetic Association.

These two examples show how one non-profit organization’s work is biased by their acceptance of contributions from corporations. The ADA publishes materials and makes recommendations to its members, mostly dieticians, on how to council their patients. This information given to patients is directly influenced and manipulated by the corporations that manufacture dietary products and are often not based on accurate scientific studies, despite their use of so-called experts, doctors, PhD’s and scientists.

What you can do:

Finding non-biased, reliable research based sources of health and fitness information is not easy. Not only are non-profits biased by corporate interests, so is our media, which is supposed to be a non-biased transmitter of information, and is also subject to the wants and needs of the corporations.

The first step is to find sources on nutrition and fitness that are independent and that do not accept monies from for-profit corporations. CSPI is one such organization which relies on subscribers and other philanthropic organizations for support.

Secondly, watch out for the corporate sponsor’s logo which will often be prominently displayed at an event such as a race, or on their written materials. This will give you a clue as to what kind of biases that organization will have.  For example, take a look at who supports the American Academy of Family Physicians. You’ll notice quite a few pharmaceutical companies, so there’s a good chance that their members, mostly Family Practitioners, have a bias towards their brand of drugs. And the AAFP in the past has printed breastfeeding pamphlets sponsored by formula companies and recently has accepted $500,000 from Coca-Cola to fund the creation of materials on beverages and sweeteners for its webpage.

Thirdly, try and determine the source of written materials on medical, health and wellness topics. I was recently given “educational” materials about a skin condition by my dermatologist. When I turned the pamphlets over, the logo and name of the pharmaceutical company that wrote the pamphlet was displayed at the bottom. After a quick internet search I was able to find scientific studies and trials regarding a more natural (less profitable) treatment using topical vitamone D instead of a prescription drug with a savings for me of hundreds of dollars.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 29, 2013 12:15 pm

    I really like what you guys are usually up too.

    Such clever work and reporting! Keep up the good
    works guys I’ve included you guys to blogroll.

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