Each year thousands of pediatricians gather for a national conference to catch up on the latest science and with each other. There’s also a huge exhibit hall, as in so many professional and trade conferences, where the latest products are displayed. At our meeting, vendors pass out logo bags that pediatricians can use going up and down the aisle picking up bagfuls of free samples, information and trinkets. This year at our October meeting in Boston, the dominant bags pediatricians were carrying up and down the aisles were Coca-Cola bags.
To me it was a shocking image, seeing so many well-meaning colleagues brandishing a Coke bag in one hand and a Coke cup in the other — logos most of us would never think of displaying in our offices. And none of us would have been the only doc there with a bold Coke logo. But peer pressure and peer acceptance work, even among doctors. Still, if we don’t want soda in baby bottles or schools, we must remember together that we are leaders.
At the conference, pediatricians had first been treated to a lavish welcome reception provided free by Coca-Cola in the Grand Ballroom – “Experience hospitality and cuisine as eclectic as Boston’s neighborhoods from the waterfront to the North End. Mix and mingle with colleagues then rock the night away with the lively music of Mystique, a premier New England band, performing center stage in the Boston Public Gardens.” I didn’t go to that event, but am told it was great food, wine, music and fun.
It’s not unusual for sponsors and supporters to spend a lot of money at professional conferences to get their message out. It’s an interesting counterpoint and supplement to the many hours of unpaid time clinicians spend in staying up-to-date or participating in continuing medical education. Nevertheless, I find it useful to pay attention to which companies are messaging physicians. It can give a good indication what the hot button issues are and what’s happening financially.
In my experience at pediatrics conferences most of these companies have been medical companies, usually making some treatment or device. This year 3 of the 5 gold level sponsors were food or beverage companies — Coca-Cola, Nestle and Abbott Nutrition (Similac formula); the other two were Novartis vaccines (the flu shot) and Pediacare.
Perhaps in one way it’s good that people are trying to reach pediatricians with messages about nutrition. Maybe there’s a growing recognition that we have a nutrition crisis and that pediatricians have an important leadership role to play and are expected to set a critical example.
We are, after all, standing hip deep in a childhood obesity epidemic — visible evidence that the way America’s children eat and drink is failing them.
Coke’s message to pediatricians? Coke is providing more diet and zero calorie options for kids. Coke is working with the American Beverage Association to create easier-to-understand beverage labels. Coke is helping to make recycling more rewarding. Coke is supporting parks. Live Positively with Coca-Cola.
Trick? Or Treat?
Kids’ and teens’ exposure to full-calorie soda ads on television doubled from 2008 to 2010, with the biggest increases coming from Coca-Cola and Dr. Pepper, according to a study released on Halloween by the Yale University Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity.
This stunning increase in influence on our children does not include the popular Coca-Cola YouTube videos or Facebook page frequented by children. Or radio ads (two-thirds of radio ads heard by teens are for full calorie sodas). But this is not inevitable. Meanwhile, over the same period, children were exposed to 22 percent fewer full-calorie ads from Pepsi than previously. (Kudos!)
As if the dramatic increase in advertising full-calorie sodas to children weren’t concerning enough, the study also details how Hispanic children see 49 percent more ads for full calorie sodas on Spanish language television than other kids see. And that black children are targeted 80 to 90 percent more than white children.
Beneath the Mask: A Real Ingredient Label
It’s said that children are what they eat. In many ways this is true. Their bodies are built from what they eat and drink. If children came with an “easier-to-understand” ingredient label, with ingredients listed in order of amount, the number 3 ingredient for the typical American child would be soda.
Soda has become the number three source of calories from age 2 to age 18. And it’s not clear that diet soda or sugary fruit drinks would be better options.
We pediatricians have a professional responsibility to address this issue. And we will.
When the masks and goodie bags are set aside, it’s children’s health that’s at stake.