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Unethical partnerships

Experts challenge health conference sponsorship from food giants linked to ill health
Unethical partnerships

The growth in sponsorship of health-related conferences by food and drink giants linked to ill health must be stopped, argues an expert in an editorial published online in the Journal of Epidemiology & Community Health.

’A growing concern’

The sponsorship is helping these brands counter their ‘unhealthy’ public image and undermining the credibility of research presented at these conferences as well as the stated values of the organisers, argues Dr Stuart Flint, from the UK’s Academy of Sport and Physical Activity at Sheffield Hallam University.

‘This increasing unethical partnership is a growing concern among the academic community.’

Academy of Sport and Physical Activity, Sheffield Hallam University

Dr Flint cites several examples of recent conferences related to public health, sport and exercise, nutrition and dietetics that have been sponsored by industry giants such as The Coca Cola Co and McDonalds Corp.

He says that these companies are increasingly seen in academic circles and suggests that, as they can’t hope to boost their sales through sponsorship of these events, the most likely reason for doing so is to improve their brand image.

‘Sponsorship of heath-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.’

Academy of Sport and Physical Activity, Sheffield Hallam University

$100m from Coca Cola

An example is the partnership 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 products from the company.

Dr Flint points out that since 2010, The Coca Cola Co alone has spent over $100m on sponsoring health-related research, partnerships, and community programmes.

Since the advent of the UK government’s Public Health Responsibility Deal, which aims to encourage the food and drink industry to voluntarily curb the ‘unhealthy’ content of its products, its sponsorship of health-related activities, research and conferences has become ‘increasingly evident’.

Researchers and conference organisers should review their criteria for accepting sponsors and exhibitors, Dr Flint suggests.

‘It is preposterous to think that health-related researchers and conference organisers believe it is acceptable to have manufacturers of unhealthy food and drink attend, sponsor, and, once there, exhibit products that have a significant role to play in ill health.’

Academy of Sport and Physical Activity, Sheffield Hallam University

’Hypocritical’ actions

Valuable studies presented at these conferences are being undermined by researchers and conference organisers who appear to be ‘selling out’ to these companies.

Companies that produce unhealthy food and drink should be prevented from sponsoring any event that promotes good health, in line with the steps already taken to curb TV adverts aimed at kids and the sponsorship of European football teams by these brands.

Dr Flint suggests that researchers and conference organisers are being ‘naïve’ if they don’t see the influence such sponsorship brings.

Researchers may also want to reconsider their allegiance to professional bodies and societies that continue to accept sponsorship from the manufacturers of unhealthy food and drink products, Dr Flint concludes.

‘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.’

Academy of Sport and Physical Activity, Sheffield Hallam University

Click here to read the full article, Are we selling our souls? Novel aspects of the presence at academic conferences of brands linked to ill health

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