Pediatricians’ Trick-or-Treat Bags

Ever wonder what happens at a pediatric conference? What's in those trick-or-treat goodie bags that companies pay big bucks for?

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 “trick-or-treat” 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 with their trick-or-treat goodies. It can give an interesting 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. Trick-or-treat!

Published on: October 31, 2011
About the Author
Photo of Alan Greene MD
Dr. Greene is a practicing physician, author, national and international TEDx speaker, and global health advocate. He is a graduate of Princeton University and University of California San Francisco.
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Recent Comments

While I so appreciate your “dream” for more responsibility in this article, I am a bit mystified as to why it has not already happened! Coke has dominated children’s drinking lives for as long as it has been around. My oldest child is now 32 and it took everything we had to convince his middle school principle to get rid of the coke machines on campus–it brought income to the school. He finally got rid of them not because Coke was bad for the children, but because he was tired of cleaning up the cans on campus! Worse yet, when I tried to improve the school lunch program (brought in twice a week to give Moms a day off, not to cover the less fortunate)in this up-scale community, I was met with all kinds of resistance…”are you trying to take away my child’s ice cream?!” I went to a pediatrician friend in residence at Stanford for support, and was told that the hospital had just started serving McDonalds to their happy patients (of course McD supported the family housing complex for families of hospitalized children). The conflicts are everywhere and have been for at least the 30 years of my child rearing! Why isn’t what you express in this article absolutely OBVIOUS to doctors and who at the conference sold out your responsibility because they could get free goodie bags? When I was in college we used to call it the military industrial complex and the take over of our lives by the greedy corporate giants…that was even longer ago…sigh.