Big Food learns from Big Tobacco

So I wasn’t the only one who thought it was odd that the Coca Cola Company was the lead corporate sponsor of this week’s 3rd International Congress on Physical Activity and Public Health.

George Davey Smith, professor of epidemiology at the University of Bristol and keynote speaker at the Congress which opened in Toronto last night, delivered an outstanding talk tracing the history of social epidemiology and the seminal work of the late Jeremy Morris, the “grandfather of physical activity and health.” But George also roused the crowd when he presented evidence to show how the food and beverage industry has distorted the evidence on the link between soft drink consumption and ill health and inactivity.

He contrasted an independent meta-analysis that found soft drink consumption to be linked to increased energy intake and body weight, less nutritional intake, and increased risk of diabetes with a “badly done” industry funded meta-analysis that reported no effect of soft drink consumption on BMI.

The Congress is a massive gathering of 1200 academics and policymakers from 47 countries. It opened with speeches by dignitaries such as the Chief Public Health Officer of Canada, David Butler-Jones, and the Ontario Minister of Health Promotion, Margarett Best, who presented stark statistics on how few adolescents (only 12%) get the daily minimum recommended amount of exercise.

Their remarks were followed by comments from the head of Coca Cola Canada, Nikos Koumettis, who described the company’s history of supporting sport (FIFA, Olympics, professional ice hockey and basketball, and community-based children’s programmes) and their new, smaller 100 calorie soft drink products targeted to consumers worried about weight control. In introducing Mr Koumettis, the organizers of the conference said that Coca Cola has been a valued sponsor of all Congresses and that their generosity allowed for reduced conference registration fees and healthy snacks during break times.

The speech of George Davey Smith, who is also a PLoS Medicine editorial board member, came mere minutes after the Coca Cola talk, which made it all the more powerful.  As usual he spoke wisely and engagingly about the history of research on social inequalities and health. and he paid tribute to the man who helped found the methodological basis of social epidemiology, Jeremy Morris. His comments about the influence that industry can have on the integrity of research were provocative and incisive.  He said this article, “The Perils of Ignoring History: Big Tobacco Played Dirty and Millions Died. How Similar Is Big Food?” by Kelly Brownell and Kenneth Warner, is essential reading.

I will blog again from the Congress, which is expected to ratify and release the first international Charter on Physical Activity and Public Health on Saturday.

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