Should public heath organizations accept grant money from big corporations? That question is at the heart of a debate over a partnership struck between Coca-Cola and the American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP).

The non-profit organization represents more than 94,600 family physicians, family medicine residents, and medical students nationwide with a mission statement to “improve the health of patients, families and communities by serving the needs of members with professionalism and creativity.”

That being so, many are wondering why the AAFP would sign a contract with the Coca-Cola Company. The grant gives the organization a reported 6-figure grant to develop consumer education content on beverages and sweeteners for their award-winning website Familydoctor.org.

The answer to that question is pretty clear to Susan Linn, Associate Director of the Media Center at Judge Baker Children's Center and co-founder of the watch-dog group the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood.

“For the money,” she says. “It is so clearly not in the interest of public health to have beverage companies offering advice as to what people are drinking.”

What is most egregious, says Linn, is that this partnership—between the largest soda company in the world and an organization of family physicians—is taking place during a child obesity epidemic. The Centers for Disease Control estimate that one out of every 5 children will grow up with type II diabetes.

Linn says filtering money through family physicians is yet another attempt by the Coca-Cola Company to market to children. So, will your pediatrician be prescribing Coca-Cola at your next doctor visit?

“Absolutely not,” says Douglas Henley, M.D., Executive Vice President and CEO of the AAFP. “We control the content, not the funder. They give us the unrestricted grant, and we will acknowledge their support, but that’s where it stops.”

Henley says the grant-funded content that their staff of writers is working on now is based on evidence on the different types of sweeteners: “What's the good of it and the not so good of it?” Before the content goes live, sometime in January of 2010, it will be reviewed and approved by a team of physicians, Henley says.

In addition to the content, Henley says, Coca-Cola does not control AAFP policy-making. “If we wish to develop a policy on the taxation of sugary beverages, that will go through our normal governance process, and they understand that.”

Henley admits that the motivation for striking this deal was financial. “The board was seeking additional sources of non-dues revenue to support the overall strategic priorities of the organization, such as advocacy, practice enhancement activities, and continued medical education,” he says.

However, Henley is quick to point out that this is not a product endorsement. Though the contract provides ad space for Coca-Cola on Familydoctor.org, it is limited to certain brands. And though Coca-Cola is allowed to used the tag line “Proud Partner of Familydoctor.org,” they are not allowed to use the phrase, “Proud Partner of the AAFP.”

“Hopefully, we will be judged on the content, not on the relationship,” he says. However, the relationship has already caused a big stir.

William Walker, M.D., director of Contra Costa Health Services in Martinez, California, publicly protested the partnership by withdrawing his 25-year membership with the AAFP.

Walker, and more than 20 other doctors, called for the AAFP to end the partnership. “How can any organization that claims to promote public health join forces with a company that promotes products that put our children at risk for obesity, heart disease and early death?” Walker said in a statement.

Henley says health organizations like the AAFP have two options: they can either ignore companies like Coca-Cola, or “think of strategic ways to formulate alliances to educate the public about making better choices.”

The truth, Henley says, is that doctors don't have the power to dictate to their patients what they should drink. What they can do, however, is “educate them about their choices.”

Still, the distance between public health and big business is not large enough for some. Over 1,000 people have written to the AAFP to express their concerns over the partnership, according to Linn, who helped to launch the letter-writing drive through the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood—and that's in just the first week of the initiative.

“Letter-writing is successful because public opinion matters,” Linn says. “If change is going to come, it's going to come because people speak up.”

This is, of course, not the first partnership of its kind, and it won't be the last. Coca-Cola is the AAFP's first partner in their new corporate partnership program, called the Consumer Alliance. Henley says they are in conversations with other consumer-oriented companies, but no additional contracts have been signed.

For more information about the Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood's letter-writing campaign, click here.

For more information about the AAFP, and their consumer-facing website, visit: Familydoctor.org.