by Marion Nestle
Oct 29 2009

Family doctors resign from AAFP over Coke partnership

Yesterday, 20 family physicians in Contra Costa County, California, ripped up their membership cards in the American Academy of Family Physicians in protest over the AAFP’s partnership with Coca-Cola.


The director of the Contra Costa Department of Health Services, Dr. William Walker, announced that he was resigning his 25-year membership in AAFP.  In his statement, Dr. Walker said:

…I am appalled and ashamed of this partnership between Coca-Cola and the American Academy of Family Physicians. How can any organization that claims to promote public health join forces with a company that promotes products that put our children at risk for obesity, heart disease and early death.

…The AAFP is supposed to be an organization that works to protect the health of children not put them at risk. Their decision to take soda money is all the more unconscionable because, unlike doctors in the 40s, they well know the negative health impact of soda. There is no shortage of documentation that soda is a major contributor to our nation’s obesity epidemic.

…Let me be clear about something: as disappointed as I am with the American Academy of Family Physicians for being duped into thinking that Coca Cola wants to help promote health, the real problem here is our children are being put at risk.

Companies like Coca Cola are polluting our communities with deceptive advertising promoting products that put our children’s health at risk.

…as a family practice doctor and the Health Officer for Contra Costa, I do have a prescription for every parent, teacher, community leader and student:

Look beyond the glitzy advertising that makes you think pouring liquid containing sugar into your body is healthy. Read the label. Look at the ingredients. I’m not suggesting that you boycott sugared drinks, but please make an informed decision about what you are consuming.

I’m calling on every city and neighborhood in our County to fight back against the industry that pushes these harmful products. I ask the American Academy of Family Physicians to end this unhealthy partnership and to join us in leading this important campaign to take back the health of our residents and end the obesity epidemic.

Strong words, indeed.  I hope that the AAFP – and other health and nutrition organizations that might consider food industry partnerships – pay close attention to these words.

* The event was covered in the Contra Costa Times. The Health Department’s website includes the press release and also a video and podcast.


Dr. Wendel Brunner, PhD, MD, Director of Public Health in the Contra Costa Department of Health Services has given me permission to post excerpts from his letter to a representative of the California Association of Family Physicians who had asked for more information about the protest:

“The epidemic of obesity is the greatest public health and clinical medicine issue of our time, and will lead to untold disease, shortened life spans, and medical cost. That epidemic took off rapidly in the 80’s. While genes and personal choices do have an impact on obesity, only profound environmental changes could lead to such a rapid development of the epidemic, and it will only be stopped by policy development and environmental and norm change. We need to create an environment that supports people in making good choices for themselves and their families.

One of the best choices families can make is to pretty much eliminate sweetened beverages. And the soda industry doesn’t want that to happen, so they are looking for credible groups who will say that drinking soda is OK for your health. But you know all that already, which makes this even more frustrating.

I am an old county doctor, but I still believe that physicians have a responsibility to advocate for their patients and fight to protect their health, and to first of all, do no harm. I am truly gratified to see that our younger physicians in Contra Costa have those same values too. The responsibility of a physician to their patient is a sacred trust; physicians should never sell out their patients’ health and well-being for a price, not even one “in the mid six figures”.

The AAFP needs to change their policy and thereby begin to redeem themselves. In the process, they would educate the country and do something valuable for the nations health, as well as for their own integrity. If they do not, they will continue an unfortunately long and sordid tradition of professionals and their organizations forgetting their purpose and their ethics and putting their narrow organizational financial interest above the interest of the public that they serve. Resigning membership seems to be the most effective way for physicians to provide a wake-up call to the AAFP, and at this point is the best thing a physician could do to benefit the organization.We anticipate that there will be more resignations as this story develops.

Everything cannot be blamed on the environment or peer pressures or economic factors; patients do have a personal responsibility to make good choices for their health and the health of their families. But physicians have the personal responsibility to make good choices too, and so do the professionals who work for them.

The AAFP and the individuals in it made a bad choice. They now have the responsibility to fix it.”

  • Anthro

    Congratulations to the docs! It’s good to see that someone has some integrity left. But why hedge on a boycott? How else do you control the obesity epidemic. You can’t have it both ways. Either you quit drinking the stuff or you don’t. The case for moderation doesn’t work well for impressionable youth who think they are invincible and think little about their long term health.

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  • Jean Johnson

    Thumbs up. It’s about time we started walking the talk and telling Big Food to buzz off.

  • David Guilfoyle

    The doctors and nurses have the integrity I thought was lacking in the health profession. Kudos to the group for taking a stand for protecting the health of everyone and speaking up against AAFP taking sugar-ladened money from a corporation that promotes products causing obesity.

  • Joseph Gentzel

    Good work Docs. Stupid move to endorse product with sugar with all its problems associated with the many health problems.

  • Jacquelyn

    Wonderful, wonderful! And shame on the AAFP!

  • Marcia

    I am happy to hear this. Finally there seems to be progress toward this movement.

  • Jill

    This is great news!

  • Celeste

    I am impressed with this move…..if sugar were the only monster here. It’s the high-fructose corn syrup that this drink is loaded with that’s killing us. What kind of world do we live in where soda with ‘pure cane sugar’ is a healthier alternative?

  • Daniel, Nutrition Advocate

    If you read this story it seems you are concerned about this issue. Please take 30 seconds to let AAFP know how foolish this decision of theirs was and still IS, since they haven’t yet announced their withdrawal from this partnership:

    quick web comment form:

  • Rena

    Bravo! My grandfather was a doctor in Contra Costa County when I was a kid… a little part of me feels proud of them for carrying the torch, not just doing the right thing.

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  • Emma Rice

    As a nurse in a pediatric office, I have seen 10 year olds weighing in at 120 lbs! Parents are promising unhealthy treats in exchange for good behavior, such as McDonald’s, Wendy’s and other sweets. It’s about time someone stand up to these companies and prevent our children from the obesity and diabetes epidemic.

  • Kelly Horton

    Dear Dr. Nestle,
    Thank you for posting a link to this news. I met you in Seattle and appreciate the work that you do to bring greater transparency to our food system in a way that is meaningful for the general public.

    I strongly applaud Dr. William Walker and his colleagues at Contra Costa Department of Health Services. As a registered dietitian member and volunteer leader within the American Dietitian Association I am embarrassed to say that our organization, ADA, announced its partnership with The Coco-Cola Company last year. (See the announcement online at:

    I was present when this partnership was announced and the only reason that I did not leave the sponsored luncheon was because I was so curious how Coca-cola expects to help the ADA achieve its goal of optimizing the nation’s health. I heard NOTHING to support that notion.

    I am an active volunteer elected leader within the ADA’s Hunger and Environmental Nutrition Dietetic Practice Group. EVERY year for at least the past five, our members have voiced their disapproval of this and other corporate partnerships. We lose members and students new to our professional organization yearly because of their anger about these partnerships. I recently led a meeting with my colleagues within HEN between us and ADA corporate sponsorship staff. Unfortunately, no one could answer for us, “Who makes the decision for these partners?” ADA’s most recent Food and Nutrition Conference and Expo included sponsorship from Monsanto, Pepsi, ConAgra, and many other corporations. While there is a growing contingent of truly healthful products being showcased at the expo, preferred space within the annual conference has traditionally been given to the previous year’s participants – meaning that Coca-cola and others get first pick, leaving little room for others.

    My understanding is many of these “strategic” partnerships are the leftover remnants of departed leadership. Now that ADA has changed leadership, I hope that it will seriously and genuinely consider terminating these partnerships that are so obviously contrary to our mission and vision. These partnerships should not be made without approval and direction from our members and our elected leaders. Only 10% of our funding comes from corporate sponsorship – so why partner with them at all when the price – our reputation – is so high? As members of the organization, we must hold our board of directors responsible for fulfilling their obligation to make decisions that will guide us towards, not away, from our mission and vision. Food corporations such as Coca-Cola, are part of a broken agricultural food system that not only threatens our health, it also degrades our environment and is the largest contributor to climate change in the world. That’s not something we as health professionals should support or be associated with.

    As Dr. Walker understands, multi-national corporations are interested in ONE thing and one thing only – MONEY. They don’t care that we are facing the first generation in human history whose lifespan is expected to be shorter than that of their parents and grandparents. So, if money talks, in today’s economic times can professional organizations afford to continue to lose our members? No, we cannot. I encourage anyone who is an RD or PhD nutritionist who has left or refused ADA membership to reconsider, to join the Hunger and Environmental Nutrition DPG and help us speed up our revolution from within the ADA. We are one of the fastest growing DPG’s in the organization – speaking to the growing awareness among dietitians that we have to change the way we produce and market food in this world.

    Kelly Horton

    Kelly D. Horton, MS, RD
    Health and Aging Policy Fellow/American Political Science Association Congressional Fellow, 2009-2010 –
    Hunger and Environmental Nutrition DPG Chair, 2009-2010 –
    Owner and Principal Consultant, Connect Nutrition

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  • tmana

    While it’s hard to believe that corporate sponsorship would not somehow affect the integrity of large organizations such as AAFP, there’s another issue at stake here:

    Many people look to board certifications as a measure of a doctor’s qualifications in his specialty field(s). A change in health insurance often requires a change in doctors from a list provided by the new insurer.

    If a doctor resigns membership in a specialty organization, doesn’t that also mean he loses his board certification — and thereby, credibility with the general public?

  • Kelly Horton

    No, the doctors so not lose their professional credentials. Credentialing is managed and maintained separately. Membership in a professional organization is a matter of person choice.

  • Jessica

    Thank you for sharing this – unfortunately it is not a story many people will pay much attention to.

    It is amazing to me that eating healthy in this country is really a counter-cultural act.

  • Paul Murphy

    At some point and time someone needed to take a stand. is in complete support of response from these trend setting doctors .

    Lets build a community based action plan to address obesity. In the pot we can add integrity , dignity , respect, kindness , and some spice called TRUTH.


    My model is called SHARED ACCOUNTABILITY , and I am confident a community can lead us into a healthier outcome.

    We seemed to be lacking in certain ingredients , but thanks to the doctors , we may have stumbled onto it.

    Lets raise awareness on Obesity Dignity and lower fat hatred in the media. I am calling for a National Obesity Action Plan, and you can play a key role .
    We need to demand a little truth and integrity for the media. Obesity is rolled up into many many parts . Poverty , education,level of income and mood altering with sugar and salt to name but a few.
    I am 2fat2fly on twitter and I hope you come by and give me a follow.

    Thanks Paul

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  • Clarence Norris M.D.

    Thankyou Dr. Walker for informing the FP’s of this very important partnership with Coca Cola.

    Keep up the good work.

    Clarence Norris M.D.

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