October 1st, 2012

I Want Some of What the American Heart Association is Smoking

Dr. Freedhoff is an assistant professor of family medicine at the University of Ottawa and founder and medical director of Ottawa’s Bariatric Medical Institute. Dr. Freedhoff sounds off daily on his award-winning blog, Weighty Matters.

When it comes to public-private partnerships between health organizations and the food industry, there are many shades of grey — but Cheetos orange isn’t one of them.  On September 9th of this year, however, the American Heart Association (AHA) Dallas Heart Walk saw Frito-Lay’s Chester the Cheetah riling up the crowd and helping to associate Frito-Lay and Cheetos with the emotions of the day —  joy, hope, charity, happiness, spirit, camaraderie, health, and generosity.

And emotional brand polish is not the only benefit Frito-Lay received for being a “My Heart. My Life.” sponsor of the walk.  They also enjoyed direct-to-consumer marketing and sampling of their chip products by handing out free samples to walkers who will hopefully be converted into brand-loyal consumers; they were given a great “corporate social responsibility” opportunity with which to defend against future industry-unfriendly legislation and actions; and, last, they saw the AHA itself explicitly support the further normalization of junk food as part of everyday life and as a reward for a job well done.

Of course, the AHA has a long association of partnering up with the food industry.  They sell their “Heart Check” branding to products that meet nutritional criteria so meager that V8 Vegetable Juice with 480mg of sodium per glass (that’s more sodium than in a large serving of McDonald’s french fries) and grape juice that contains nearly double the calories and sugar of Coca-Cola qualify and consumers are duped into thinking they’re making healthful choices; and they’ve encouraged consumers to abandon their kitchens and head to Subway instead.

The usual arguments in support of these sorts of decisions are that the checks and partnerships will help lead people to healthier choices.  But is “less horrible” truly the same as “good”? And are these choices really even “less horrible”?

Shouldn’t the role of the AHA be to promote truly healthy living, not seeming shortcuts to health that lull consumers into very false senses of security?

Diet and weight-related diseases are ravaging the developed world.  Americans are now spending the majority of their food dollar on foods purchased outside of the home, while the purchase of processed foods for consumption inside the home have doubled since 1982.  We are not going to solve our nutritional woes by holding hands with the food industry.  Instead, we need to aggressively and repeatedly hammer home the message that there are no shortcuts to health, that health can’t be purchased in a box or in a restaurant, that kitchens are the most valuable rooms in our homes, and that health organizations should not serve as sales and marketing teams for Big Food.

We need someone to be our C. Everett Koop: To stand up and call Big Food out for what it is — our modern day Big Tobacco. And just like with Big Tobacco, this challenge requires fight, not friendship.

6 Responses to “I Want Some of What the American Heart Association is Smoking”

  1. William DeMedio, MD says:

    I don’t get angry at all about this sponsorship. People who grew up in working poor families in the past appreciate the need for “big food”. The alternative (hunger) is a whole lot worse. We are truly blessed that hunger has been nearly eliminated in the US. I will give you credit that obesity is a big problem right now but the converse is worse. I say take the money from the sponsor and put it to good use. There was a time when the associations would be taking money from the tobacco companies. Look in some journals from the 1940’s and 1950’s and you’ll see what I mean.

  2. Jeoffry Gordon, MD, MPH says:

    Great essay. It reflects a world where cardiologists love to do interventions and push pills, while us primary care docs swim upstream trying to protect patients from socially acceptable eating habits promoted by the food industry that have resulted in massive epidemics of obesity, diabetes and premature death. A professional red line of outrage is long overdue.

  3. Jonathan Newman, MD, MPH says:

    While this Fritos fiasco certainly justifies some amount of umbrage toward the AHA, the conflicts of the fast food industry in healthcare really aren’t new or surprising: for years McDonald’s has been challenged to remove its fast-food chain from many preeminent children’s hospitals, including the Cleveland clinic and Children’s Memorial in Chicago. See: http://www.qsrweb.com/article/192959/Advocacy-group-asks-children-s-hospitals-to-remove-McDonald-s

  4. Here’s a sequel to Dr. Freedhoff’s excellent post about Fritos and the AHA:

    This weekend I received a press kit from Jenny Craig. The diet company was publicizing the participation of tabloid celebrity Valerie Bertinelli, a Jenny Craig “brand ambassador,” in the AHA’s Los Angeles Heart Walk on Saturday. At first glance, Jenny Craig’s relationship with the AHA does not appear to be as awful as Frito Lay’s. After all, whatever else you may think about the company and its methods, obesity is a major problem, and if some people can defy the odds and lose weight with Jenny Craig then all the better for them.

    But the Jenny Craig relationship brings up another, more subtle harm caused by these sort of increasingly popular arrangements in which nonprofit organizations accept money from for-profit corporations. I was astonished to read the second paragraph of the Jenny Craig press release:

    “Bertinelli, who has lost weight on the Jenny Craig program, recognizes the importance of being in good heart health, and owes her mother’s life to Jenny Craig. Bertinelli’s mother, Nancy, lost 54 pounds* on Jenny Craig after witnessing her daughter’s success on the program. In October of 2008, Bertinelli’s mother required emergency heart valve replacement surgery. After the successful surgery, the cardiologist pulled Bertinelli and her brother aside and told them that if their mother hadn’t previously lost weight, she would not have survived the surgery.”

    Scientifically and medically, this is an entirely irresponsible statement, if in fact a cardiologist did make this statement. My source for this assertion? The AHA itself. Here’s what an AHA science advisory had to say about this exact topic:

    “Severe obesity has not been associated with increased mortality in patients undergoing cardiac surgery but has been associated with an increased length of hospital stay and with a greater likelihood of renal failure and prolonged assisted ventilation.”

    One of the most important roles of the AHA is to encourage, develop, and support the use of evidence-based medicine. Why then does the AHA agree to partner with companies that flagrantly (Frito Lay) or more subtly (Jenny Craig) undermine that effort?

    Fun facts: Jenny Craig is a wholly owned subsidiary of Nestlé. Frito Lay is owned by Pepsi.

  5. Edgar Abovich, MD says:

    I suspect the money AHA collects from above companies trumps common sense and, more importantly, allows them to smoke exactly what they want.

  6. Jean-Pierre Usdin, MD says:

    Recently, in Paris a yearly run specially dedicated to women
    “La Parisienne” -23 000 participants, all female- was done.
    The purpose is, since 16 years of its existence: “fight against breast cancer”
    It was sponsored in part by a well known fast food and some typical soft beverage.
    Furthermore, I unfortunately saw participating women smoking!
    Convincing messages relative to prevention are very hard to transmit and accept this kind of sponsors is not clear.
    In the same time doctors are suspected of conflicts of interest in every opinion they want to share!