It’s highly encouraging to us that thought leaders in the nutrition, medical, and public health fields are calling for more responsible and transparent sponsorship policies among health organizations.
Last year, news broke that the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO) accepted money from companies like Coca-Cola and Nestlé. Much like the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, PAHO stated that this funding was necessary in order to fund the organization’s work on preventing and controlling chronic non-communicable diseases.
In turn, seven World Public Health Nutrition Association (WPHNA) members sent an open letter to PAHO’s incoming director, Dr. Carissa Etienne. The writers of the letter are luminaries in the realms of medicine, nutrition, and public health:
* Dr. Carlos Monteiro of the University of São Paulo, Brazil;
* Dr. Marion Nestle of New York University
* Dr. Barry Popkin of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
* Dr. Juan Rivera of the National Institute of Public Health, Mexico;
* Dr. Ricardo Uauy of the University of Chile;
* Dr. César Victora of the University of Pelotas, Brazil, and
* Dr. Walter Willett of the Harvard School of Public Health
The open letter to Director Etienne is below:
“Dear Dr. Etienne,
Congratulations on your appointment as director of the Pan American Health Organization. We write this open letter to you as dedicated supporters of the UN System and UN principles. As UN advisors collectively for many years, we represent a large group of concerned public health scientists from the Americas
Your appointment provides a great opportunity to celebrate the achievements of PAHO in addressing the pressing public health problems in the Americas. We respectfully suggest that it is also time to reconsider recent steps that have moved PAHO away from the path of promoting better nutrition and health status in the Americas and, in your words, by ‘ensuring that the organization continues a path of excellence’.
The nature of engagement of PAHO with multinational corporations whose interests are in conflict with those of public health, which recently became widely known, is one of the issues that should be urgently addressed. The fact that PAHO received money from the Coca-Cola Company and other food and beverage corporations has damaged its reputation as the leading UN organization concerned with nutrition and public health in our Hemisphere. It has signaled that PAHO policies might be constrained in advancing policies and public health actions in conflict with the commercial interests of these corporations.
With your renewed leadership, PAHO now needs to agree and enact effective public policies to prevent and control the epidemics of obesity, and related diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer; which, as you know, are engulfing the Americas. These policies need to be independent, and to be perceived as such. By creating evident dependence on inappropriate corporate funding and other forms of support, we believe PAHO has seriously weakened its ability to protect and promote public health nutrition. We encourage you to review and revise PAHO’s position on the formulation of its policies that are designed to prevent and control diseases that are related to unhealthy diet and physical inactivity.
We hope that you will act to safeguard the reputation and effectiveness of PAHO by establishing public policies that are developed and agreed independently of commercial or private interests. Thus, the importance of not accepting funding or any other type of support from industries whose revenue and profits are largely derived from alcohol or from food and drink products, or from organizations whose core funding largely comes from such products. We also request that you state a policy that such industries will not be invited to participate in PAHO initiatives or other work designed to formulate public health and nutrition policies.
With this letter, we place ourselves at your disposal, and commit ourselves to support you as you take actions to invigorate PAHO public health commitments, ensuring its independence, and to protecting and promoting public health interests in the Americas. We are sure that the majority of public health professionals in the Americas will support you in this.”
For what it’s worth, the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics’ response to these concerns, as brought up by dietitians, has been to brush them aside and claim that these food companies’ dollars do not affect Academy messaging. Our request to have dialogue and collaboration to set up clear guidelines around sponsorship was also refuted.
Oddly (but very likely strategically), the Academy has continuously publicly framed this as a matter of “sponsorship versus no sponsorship,” despite DFPI stating on several ocassions that our stance is not one against all sponsorship, but rather one of advocating for more responsible and ethical sponsorship.
Last year, when we expressed interest in having a point-counterpoint panel consisting entirely of RDs on this topic, the Academy rejected that idea claiming that the topic was “too sensitive” to have RDs discuss it. Instead, the Academy brought on two speakers, neither of them RDs, to essentially tell dietitians that any concerns about taking money from Coca-Cola were unfounded and silly.
It is our hope that Academy leadership will pay attention to the above letter and see that not only are public health and nutrition thought leaders calling for action, but that attempts to sweep this under the rug are in vain. This is an issue that has captured global attention, and scrutiny will very likely intensify over the coming years. Until then, the Academy will have to accept that as long as it continues to uphold its current sponsorship model, its reputation among other health professionals and the general public will continue to take a hit.