Screen Shot 2013-01-28 at 10.38.06 AMI’m curious what you think. Do you think companies that make, sell, and market soda can improve the challenges we face with obesity? I’m asking sincerely. I was struck by the Coca-Cola ad (below) recently released. I’m a pediatrician and I’ve never worked for a beverage company or any company that sells products to children. I don’t like that these companies market salty, fatty, sugary products to children. As a pediatrician, I would suggest I’m very biased. The food industry spends $15 BILLION marketing and advertising to children every year. Food advertising, directly to children, is known to increase rates of obesity. Even familiarity with fast-food ads has been found to be problematic. As parents, this isn’t hard to believe; I’ve seen my boys introduced to a product on TV and then ask for it at the grocery store. Because of my bias, I’m asking you—do you think companies like Coca-Cola and Pepsi can help?

As the obesity problem persists, strategies have turned to protocols and regulation. Today, the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) released it’s first policy on managing weight-related diabetes. And in the past few years, the American Heart Association released a statement asking for increased regulation on advertising high-calorie, low nutrient-dense (“junk”) foods to children. In 2006, The Institutes of Medicine (IOM) said, “Food marketing intentionally targets children who are too young to distinguish advertising from truth and induces them to eat high-calorie, low-nutrient (but highly profitable) “junk” foods; companies succeed so well in this effort that business-as-usual cannot be allowed to continue.”  Similar sentiments are shared by the American Psychological Association, the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), Children Now, the American Medical Association, and the American Academy of Pediatrics. The public, too. Last fall, the majority (67%) of international readers polled in The New England Journal of Medicine believed we should regulate sugary-beverage consumption. This on the heels of New York’s regulation banning sale of large sugary drinks. This isn’t just about a tax. Can these companies help?

Soda consumption is going down in the US. But instead of soda, our children may be reaching for sports drinks and/or vitamin-infused sweet water. When thirsty, they still may not be reaching for water.

Clearly, there’s no one thing that will solve all of our children’s risk for unhealthy weight. It will take changes in diet, portions, activity, habits, and attitude to improve obesity rates.

A powerful story on NPR this morning heightened my curiosity about partnerships. The report detailed Dr Derek Yach’s 6 years working with Pepsi. His role has became emblematic to conflicts of interest. By choosing to work at Pepsi, he showed his belief that working with companies who make soda will improve health. But as NPR reports, skeptics and nutritionists, like Food Politics author Marion Nestle, believe Yach may have helped the “sugar-water” build credibility, further advancing the problem of sugary beverage consumption.

Is Dr. Derek Yach a good guy who went to the dark side? Or is it possible that he’s right, good people work everywhere and with help and education, advocacy from within will improve the way we live and eat?

This conversation about soda companies and health initiatives is similar to the debates about doctors “selling out” and working for pharmaceutical companies. I don’t believe Pharma is all evil and I certainly don’t think all doctors and researchers sell out who help make or promote drugs they believe in. Pharma companies research, make, and sell drugs. They market them to potential patients. They spend millions (perhaps billions–feel free to set me straight) to get physicians all around the world to write prescriptions for the medications or products. They have goals of increasing market share, too. I suspect most people working in pharmaceuticals believe they are easing the pain and suffering of others. I also recognize the complexity of that belief and the slippery slope. The easiest argument I keep close to my heart is one presented to me on day one of my ethics training: if drug companies didn’t think the pens or pads of paper or trips to Hawaii they give doctors improved sales, they wouldn’t give them.

But what about nutrition? Can companies that sell sweetened formula, toddler snacks, soda, chips, and sugar-sweetened beverages do good in the fight to return our nation to a healthy weight? Check out the ad that Coca-Cola recently released and then watch the “honest” reworked, editorialized version below.

Please, share your take.  Is Coca-Cola’s new ad simply another marketing tactic or a true push in the right direction? Do you think it’s possible for these companies–with stock holders demanding them to maintain or grow market share–to improve the lives of our children? Will their enormous platforms and their massive boxes of food and beverages help innovate and redirect our thinking about what and how we eat?