We all know that more needs to be done to combat obesity, in particular in young people.  However, with government budgets under pressure, it is always going to be a challenge to get sufficient public funding to make a real difference.  The private sector can be a welcome source of funding for health promotion and education initiatives – but what happens if this funding comes from a corporation whose interests seem to undermine public health objectives?  The dilemma was recently faced by Bicycle Network Victoria which has entered into a partnership with Coca-Cola.  Ross Green, a Bicycle Victoria member who works in public health is concerned about this decision and discusses the complex policy, ethical and practical issues involved with agreements such as this.  Ross writes:

Coca Cola Australia recently announced a range of ‘commitments to help address obesity’ including placing kilojoule information about its products on its vending machines, promoting the importance of energy balance and, of course, new product lines. All of a sudden the fight against obesity had a new ally. Incidentally, not long after this announcement, when quizzed by Melbourne Radio host Neil Mitchell, Coca Cola denied they were part of the problem in the first place.

One eyebrow raising initiative in this suite of commitments is the new pedal power partnership with Bicycle Network Victoria (‘Bicycle Network’).

It seems an odd fit. Bicycle Network is a recognised charity with almost 50,000 members that ‘promotes the health of the community’ to ‘get more people cycling more often’. Coca Cola is, well, Coca Cola.

Coca Cola and Bicycle Network are partners on a project to increase physical activity levels of 15- and 16-year-olds by giving them bikes and digital equipment to record details of their rides. A pilot phase of the project for at least 1500 teens will commence in six Victorian communities later this year, and the project will eventually roll out to thousands of teenagers across Australia. Bicycle Network will manage the project in collaboration with Coca-Cola South Pacific, ‘utilising its [Coca Cola’s] proven behaviour change methodologies.’

Public health experts have reacted strongly to Coca-Cola’s anti-obesity campaign, labelling it a ‘smokescreen’ and ‘weight-washing’, while criticism has also come in the News Limited opinion pages, and in numerous letters to the editor in print media throughout Australia.

Bicycle Network spokesman Garry Brennan defended the partnership, calling it a ‘breakthrough opportunity’ that ‘puts physical activity back onto the public health agenda’.

As a Bicycle Network member, I find this partnership really disturbing. And it looks like I’m not the only one.

The dilemma for Bicycle Network members and stakeholders is whether to continue supporting the work of the organisation or not. Can we really trust an organisation with the community’s best interests at heart when they are in partnership with Coca Cola (who notoriously only have their own interests at heart)? 

Bicycle Network do good health promotion work in many areas, including policy, advocacy, infrastructure improvement and holding numerous community events. They promote disease prevention messages by emphasising the importance of physical activity in preventing health conditions like diabetes, heart disease, obesity, depression and breast cancer. They reference important pillars of public health like the Ottawa Charter and the Jakarta Declaration, and even acknowledge the ‘journey to prevention in Australia’ by describing the evolution and importance of the Australian National Preventive Health Agency, including its Expert Committee on Obesity.

Which is why this new partnership with Coca Cola is so baffling.

How can Bicycle Network promote healthy lifestyle messages to the community while riding tandem with Coca Cola at the same time? Surely this undermines a lot of the work they do.

Of course, they’re not the first not-for-profit to partner with a corporate behemoth whose primary interest is profit over public health. But how far have Bicycle Network thought this through?

This article from the Canadian Medical Association Journal, as highlighted in Croakey’s Register of Public Health Influencers, argues that health organisations should avoid ‘co-branding’ with the food industry altogether, as they become ‘inadvertent pitchmen for the food industry’ and risk ‘distorting evidence-based lifestyle recommendations and health messages’.

In this instance, Bicycle Network’s sole focus on physical activity is problematic, as it ignores other relevant public health messages, such as those about healthy eating or tooth decay.

For me, this partnership poses a number of questions, including:

  • Does Bicycle Network really need Coca Cola’s ‘proven behaviour change methodologies’ to help them work with local councils and community groups to get more teens riding bikes?
  • How extensively did Bicycle Network look into other, more ethical partnerships?
  • Will the partnership with Coca Cola affect the Ride2School program (I’m sure Coca Cola would love to sponsor this in the coming years)?
  • How will Bicycle Network members and stakeholders react?
  • How much influence will Coca Cola exert over Bicycle Network (in both the short and long term)?

Bicycle Network’s credibility has plummeted in my estimations – remember, this is a partnership not just a donation – and I think it’s completely irresponsible and hypocritical of them to team up with Coca Cola.

So, I’m reconsidering my Bicycle Network membership. And I’m wondering if anyone else is too?




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