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Can an Obesity NGO Take Money from ‘Big Food’?

It’s Thanksgiving weekend in Canada, a festive time of feasting with friends and family. Since food takes centre stage during this holiday, I thought this would be a good time to bring up a whole other turkey of a discussion that’s been simmering on my back burner for a while. Warning: I am serving this with a large smattering of sarcasm on the side.

As readers may be aware, in my ample spare time I volunteer as the Scientific Director of the Canadian Obesity Network – to my knowledge, the largest NGO of obesity professionals in the world – dedicated to fighting weight bias and promoting evidence-based solutions to obesity prevention and management.

Wearing this hat sometimes puts me in situations where I have to face important questions like whether or not the Network could possibly partner with or accept money from corporations – especially those deemed ‘part of the problem’.

Food corporations, like all corporations, exist to make money for their shareholders. They do so by selling food and beverages – as much as possible, to as many customers as possible, with the greatest profit margin possible.  Unhealthy foods are cheap to make and distribute, while healthy foods are expensive to make and distribute. Therefore, the more unhealthy foods ‘Big Food’ can make and sell, the greater their profits.

So are food and beverage companies to blame for the obesity epidemic? Are they tainted in the same way that ‘Big Tobacco’ is tainted for promoting and selling cigarettes?

Tobacco causes cancer and heart disease – tobacco companies sell tobacco – so taking money from tobacco companies to fight cancer and heart disease is probably not a good idea. This is especially true if giving a small share of their profits to fight cancer and heart disease actually helps them sell a lot more tobacco (perhaps even to little children slaving away in sweat shops in developing countries). In fact, you could argue that if tobacco companies were at all serious about preventing cancer and heart disease, they could simply fire their employees and quietly go out of business.

If only things were that straightforward when it comes to linking Big Food to obesity.

First of all, most major food corporations also makes some foods that are healthy (or can, in moderate amounts, be part of a ‘balanced’ diet).  In contrast, although some tobacco products may be less harmful than others, no tobacco company makes a truly ‘healthy’ tobacco product.

Secondly, no one needs to smoke – but everyone needs to eat. So while we will all happily survive even it the last tobacco company went out of business – most of us would likely go hungry if even just a few of the major food corporations stopped making food.

But neither one of these arguments is really the topic of today’s post. Rather, this post is about addressing the concerns of purists and health-evangelists, who point out that, since all major food corporations make and sell at least some products that may well ‘promote’ obesity, for an obesity NGO to accept ANY support from Big Food (even if there are ‘no strings attached’) can only be completely and utterly unacceptable. Doing so, they argue, would amount to nothing less than helping Big Food sell even more of their ‘obesogenic’ foods. Essentially, the argument goes, taking money from Big Food – even if only to fund a worthwhile project, like addressing weight bias or supporting professional education – is merely ‘putting lipstick on the pig.’

So if the argument is that an obesity NGO simply cannot partner with any food (or beverage) company that makes ANY ‘unhealthy’ food products because by doing so would only help the corporation sell even more of their unhealthy foods, then I would happily argue that the same logic should apply to any business or industry that makes money by enabling or promoting ‘obesogenic’ foods (or other obesity-promoting products).

To me this would imply that an obesity NGO would also have to say ‘no’ to funding from the folks who happen to make any of the unhealthy ingredients that go into these unhealthy foods and drinks – food processors, chemical manufacturers and so on.

But why just them? Isn’t the production of these unhealthy ingredients also promoted by the irresponsible corporations that produce the (genetically modified) seeds, fertilizer, pesticides, hormones and antibiotics required to grow or raise these unhealthy ‘ingredients’?

And why stop there? How about the retail and restaurant industry and the evil marketing and advertising companies that unscrupulously continue to make handsome profits from helping Big Food ‘push’ these unhealthy foods onto gullible consumers?

What about the media corporations that make billions by publishing and broadcasting advertisements for unhealthy ‘obesogenic’ products to our children? What about the nefarious designers and software companies that make the programs that make these advertisements and commercials so appealing, or the institutions that teach people the skills that can be misused for such purposes? What about the many scoundrels who make the very equipment that allows mass publishing of these ‘obesity-promoting’ ads?

And let us not forget the dastardly entertainment industry that unethically makes billions each year by cleverly littering their movies, video games and live events with product placements for unhealthy foods and drinks.  And don’t even get me started on the obscene billions that Hollywood makes from irresponsibly licensing cartoon characters to boost sales of even more junk to kids. And aren’t these the same folks, who also produce those addictive TV shows that keep us in front of screens late into the night instead of allowing us all to go to sleep at sunset so that we can get enough sleep and not have to crave those unhealthy foods in the first place? And wouldn’t banning television past 8:00 pm encourage us to sleep, so we can wake up bright and early with enough time to eat a healthy leisurely breakfast?

Indeed, I simply cannot see how any obesity NGO could ever partner with or even consider accepting free ‘air-time’ from an industry that puts on a “Hockey Night in Canada” only to keep people glued to their TV sets (which incidentally allows them to happily sell even more ads for unhealthy foods and drinks)?

Indeed, why even stop at unhealthy foods?

Isn’t sedentariness as much part of the obesity problem? Isn’t the automobile industry and the personal computer industry and those irresponsible and unethical companies that make industrial robots and elevators and escalators or garage door openers also to blame?

How about the IT and electronics industry that will not cease and desist till every one of us carries at least three portable (time-saving?) ‘personal’ devices and will not rest before there is at least one LCD or plasma screen in every room of our homes?

And how about those scoundrel land developers who put us all at risk for obesity by continuing to build unwalkable communities? And how, exactly, are we punishing the fiendish architects who cunningly hide the entrance to stairwells deep in the bowels of their buildings?

Which reminds me, isn’t there also a problem with the air-conditioning industry that allows us to control our environment to temperatures that destroy brown fat, thereby preserving bazillion calories worth of non-shivering thermogenesis?

And why would anyone even consider taking money from the banks that finance these evil industries?

Which makes me really wonder about the folks who shamelessly make good money working for these industries and then impudently seek to ease their troubled conscience by ‘generously’ donating a minute fraction of their annual income to health charities, all the while actively contributing to the childhood obesity problem by failing to ban unhealthy foods and TV screens from their homes and irresponsibly continue dishing up obscene Turkey dinners for their family and friends.

And let us not forget the many self-righteous ‘white-hat’ researcher/activist-types, these incorrigible do-gooders, who make a rather respectable living by unrelentingly waving their fingers (in New York Times bestsellers and box-office-busting award-winning ‘documentaries’) at the evil dark forces that promote the very conditions (cancer, heart disease, obesity) that they are funded to study.

And last but not least, how can we even trust the health care industry or those parasitic health ‘charities’. After all, isn’t their only raison d’etre the very fact that people get unhealthy by doing unhealthy things (like trying to live forever)? Just imagine the catastrophic scenario that would completely devastate the ‘pink ribbon’ industry if someone somewhere actually did suddenly find ‘The Cure’! (Imagine all the people who would be left with no reason to run!).

So why just go for the easy targets – the ‘Big Foods’ and ‘Big Drinks’ of the world? Why not go after anyone and everyone, who is in any form or fashion is part of the problem or ruthlessly profits from it.

So please, if you work for or even just happen to own any shares of the above-mentioned industries in your retirement funds, please do not offend obesity NGO’s by offering them your money.

Also, if your company has ever taken money from any of these industries thereby enabling their ‘evil deeds’, and most certainly, if any of your employees have ever supported any of these industries by consuming any of these companies’ products (even just the ‘healthy’ ones), then please DO NOT CALL US.

And, taking this line of reasoning to its ultimately absurd conclusion, if you have ever paid taxes to support any government that has ever passed any laws to support ‘obesogenic’ industries – or that simply refuses to pass laws to ensure that we are only and at all times surrounded by ‘healthy’ products – please do not block our telephone lines with your offers of support.

In fact, I’d much rather see organizations like the Canadian Obesity Network turn off the lights forever than even remotely have to consider accepting donations that are the fruit of ill-begotten gains and will only serve to make the problem even bigger.

Perhaps simply shutting down the Network is indeed the surest way to ensure that no one (corporate, non-corporate, or private citizen) will ever misuse their contribution to the Network (however big or small) to make the obesity problem worse than it already is.

I could simply not imagine myself waking up to a front-page headline that screams:

Big Food Funding for Obesity Network Helps Canadians Pack on the Pounds.

I sincerely doubt I could live with myself if that were ever to happen.

How about we simply accept that all of us are more or less part of the global obesity problem and that all of us need to be part of finding solutions. Only large corporations and governments (and perhaps a handful of philantropists) have the necessary clout to support the activities of an organization like the Obesity Network, which I hope most people will agree, is trying hard to find and promote solutions based on the best scientific evidence and reasoning.

Pointing fingers, politicizing and demonizing is not helpful. ‘Unconstructive’ criticism will take us nowhere.

And believe me, I am not proposing or seeking an ‘appeasement’ strategy – I am also not talking of blankly endorsing or implicitly white-washing any industry or all of their practices.

But to close the door to funding and partnerships that could help the Network accomplish its declared strategic goals and objectives, simply based on a matter of ‘principle’, would ultimately mean giving up.

Yes, there need to be clear rules, policies, transparence, accountability, governance and oversight – the more the better – fortunately, the Canadian Obesity Network has all of that and more.

I, for one, would like to thank all of the many partners and members of the Network for their unwavering and enthusiastic support. I invite all who consider themselves part of the problem to step up to the plate and become even a small part of the solution!

Happy Thanksgiving to All.

Edmonton, Alberta


  1. Arya,

    You know I love you.

    That said, the straw men in this post risk a fire.

    Rather than get into things here – I invite you and your readers to watch the debate Diane and I had at TOS 2011.

    I’ll be posting it in its entirely on my blog and should provide readers with a good sense of some of the pros and cons of health organization partnerships and some potential solutions and lines in the sand.


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  2. While I appreciate the humorous tone of this post and that it points out the slippery slope that can result from trying to be too ‘purist’, I do feel that the ethical issue of ‘who’ invests in which ‘fights’ is completely belittled here. An example that I have borrowed from others is in regards to breastfeeding. Should we simply accept that Nestlé (which is often targeted among other milk supplementation producers) attach its name and logo to breastfeeding promotion through tv commercials, brochures, etc. claiming to ‘inform’ the public about breastfeeding? What about conferences on breastfeeding and free formula in hospital maternity units/giving samples away to all new mothers? Some research has shown that new mothers who are NOT given formula samples when they leave the hospital tend to continue breastfeeding longer. Perhaps also a function of additional support from the health providers in a setting that does not give out free formula. Still, the evidence is worth considering.

    If ‘Big Food’ really wants to contribute to the health and well-being of populations, why not donate anonymously to organizations or contribute through governmental taxation for the potential ‘harm’ they do? If almsot every corner of the world is trying to limit advertising to children, isn’t it because evidence shows that advertising influences us, at least to some extent? I do realize that accepting money from industry doesn’t – and shouldn’t – be simply black or white. There are grey zones that are dealt with through policies, etc., as you mention.

    But better yet, why not let the evidence speak on the influence of accepting money from commercial interests: does it change the public’s impression of such an organization? What about the professional/academic peers who work in that area? What does behavioural science/psychology/marketing/advertising literature say?

    Thanks so much for raising this important issue that shouldn’t be a simple dichotomy of purists against money from Big Business and ’embracers’ of such funds, but a true discussion.

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  3. Thanks for this post, I’m glad that so many people are now discussing this issue so publicly.

    I fall somewhere on the spectrum between you and Yoni, but I agree with him that this does seem like a bit of a straw-man argument. It does seem that if someone were so inclined, they could draw a line in the sand denoting which companies are going to be especially problematic for a given organization. The problem as I see it, is that the line that makes CON comfortable may not be the line that makes the ADA or TOS comfortable, and almost no line will satisfy everyone (I’m thinking that someone like Michele Simon would like to see as little industry funding as possible).

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  4. I’m just sort of curious as to what prompted this “epistle?”

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  5. I’m not a nutritional puritan or food conspiracy theorist. However, I really wouldn’t go there (accept food industry funding) if I were you. It creates an appearance of possible bias, and it might affect the tone of the organization even if you don’t intend for it to. Sources of funding have a way of influencing scientific work in subtle but significant ways. Studies on funding bias have backed that up. There’s a few of them cited in the Wikipedia entry.

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  6. I think this is an interesting argument, and one that isn’t going anywhere. People have strong opinions on either side, and at the end of the day I think Travis hit the nail on the head when he said that you have to be able to live with the partnerships that you’ve made. If you feel they’re ethically sound, then go for it. I am glad this is out in the open though, and the talks at the Obesity Summit in Montreal really highlighted the different aspects to this issue.

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  7. I appreciate all of the above comments and certainly understand both sides of the argument.

    To the critics – i’d like to see your suggestions for ‘acceptable’ funding sources and how to get them to support the network.

    After all you can’t want the Network to do what it does with no money.

    All suggestions (and cheques) welcome!

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  8. “After all you can’t want the Network to do what it does with no money.”

    This is the heart of it. If everyone who complained also dug into their own pockets, then that might solve the problem right there.

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  9. While certainly the question of, “who will fund us”, is a practical one, I don’t think it has anything whatsoever to do with the argument surrounding the ethics of these arrangements.

    Though I didn’t include it in my talk, the money argument was something I looked into as well. I didn’t include it because as I noted above, I decided it was extraneous to the actual debate.

    That said, there was tremendous worry among both the arts and sports communities when tobacco funding was banned in the late 80s and early 90s. Similarly there was concern among restaurants and bars in the early 2000s. Ultimately their worries proved unfounded as other funding sources moved in to fill the void in the arts and sports communities and studies on bar and restaurant receipts demonstrated no change and in some cases, growth.

    Sadly, I don’t have any brilliant funding suggestions for CON, though I do truly believe that were CON to provide exceptional value by creating useful and compelling content, it won’t be difficult to find funding.

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  10. Interesting discussion and like others have said it is great that it has become more public. As I said in the debate, the complexity of the obesity challenge means we need more thoughtful lines in the sand. I don’t believe we should draw that line as Yoni has on the side of no partnership ever, but I also don’t see that we should draw it as you have Arya, by taking money from anyone. In fact it is the “sponsorship” type of relationship that leads to the most problematic co-branding as illustrated by Yoni (e.g. pink buckets of chicken for the cure).

    Instead we should build authentic trusting relationships across sectors to address the problems that need multi-sector partnerships.

    No this does not solve CON’s money challenges and I don’t agree with Yoni that if CON just created useful and compelling content it would not be difficult to find cash. There are many many public sector orgs that do this and struggle for funding, mostly because government entities struggle to see beyond short term initiatives that produce big impacts and get them re-elected.

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  11. Hi Dr. Sharma:
    The one group that likes to give-up money rightfully or unrightfully earn has a very lage group of zero. The big food corperations live off encouraging consumption to the benefit if there shareholder’s–Therefore should not these share holders be the ones dinged for the health cost related issues such as you are proposing. P.S. they still will not like it but they are the ones benefitting the most.

    The living without tobacco argument works with ALL addictions except food–being proned to binge eating I can atest that most if not all people do not understand binge eating addictions even if they understand addictions. I wonder which food corperation should be held responsable for my binging on 3 canteloupe.

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  12. Think the first step is asking the discipline committees of the various colleges represented in your organization to give guidelines on where the line is that they wouldn’t defend. What’s ethically acceptable to the College of Physicians and Surgeons might differ from what is acceptable to other licensing bodies. I’m sure industry is curious about your work but is placing its bets on the consumer being resistant to weight loss. If you should make progress on changing the shape of Canadians, these sponsors will meet their legal obligations to their shareholders in one way or another. While you’re coming up with possible solutions to obesity, they will be finding ways to increase their bottom line by developing new products and services to market to their target demographic.

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  13. To the critics – i’d like to see your suggestions for ‘acceptable’ funding sources and how to get them to support the network.

    My answer to that is to keep the organization’s scope in line with what can be funded with (for example) government grants and membership fees. But, as you know, I’m someone who thinks that the fuss over “obesity” is overblown to begin with. I don’t really believe in the obesity epidemic hype, and I think that the people who you have the potential to help are actually a very small percentage of the population.

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  14. I am not nearly as concerned with CON accepting money from Big Food as I am from Big Diet. Clearly, Rena Wing accepting a contract from SlimFast in 2001 diminished the credibility of the National Weight Control Registry. How can you claim you are studying a subject such as weight maintenance without bias when you have partnered with a company that purports to be the answer? What happens if your research reveals otherwise? (Actually, it’s more subtle than that. The NWCR simply doesn’t entertain the idea that diet products — and the yo-yo weight cycling they may cause — are unhelpful. They should be entertaining those ideas, however.) Moreover, Big Diet is happy to co-opt the language of its polar opposites. How many Diets now claim that they AREN’T diets, they’re “lifestyles.” (I roll my eyes.) I can envision Weight Watchers or Curves coming to you on the precept of helping you fighting weight bias, and using your imprimatur to their ends, and it makes me edgy.

    I think the answer lies in this sentence:

    “Yes, there need to be clear rules, policies, transparence, accountability, governance and oversight – the more the better – fortunately, the Canadian Obesity Network has all of that and more.”

    If you haven’t done it already, you need to put your Stewardship Statement in an obvious place on your website, and make it as clear and air tight as you can. Invite all entities to partner with you who are committed to promoting your mission. However, reserve the right to decline support or return it on a case-by-case basis when your core values have been violated or are at odds. While each funding partnership will have a unique framework, there should be consistent limits on how the CON logo can be used by its supporters. Acceptance of a gift cannot be interpretted as an “endorsement.” Moreover, the medical doctors and scientists associated with CON remain independent and are not beholden to promote CON sponsors and may, as they see fit in the course of their duty to educate and promote health, openly criticize them. (Like you could shut Yoni up, anyway.)

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