Coca-Cola and Pepsi's social responsibility campaigns are misleading and divert attention from the health risks of their products, a medical journal says.

The online journal PloS Medicine, published by the Public Library of Science, launched a series on "Big Food" Tuesday written by public health experts and advocates.

Childhood obesity has been called "one of the most serious public health challenges of the 21st century," and drinking sugar-sweetened beverage "has helped fuel this crisis," Andrew Cheyne of the Berkeley Media Studies Group in California and his co-authors wrote.

Corporate social responsibility (CSR) includes companies' legal, ethical, and philanthropic responsibilities to society on top of their financial responsibilities to shareholders, they said.

"These campaigns echo the tobacco industry’s use of corporate social responsibility as a means to focus responsibility on consumers rather than on the corporation, bolster the companies’ and their products' popularity, and to prevent regulation,"  the authors wrote.  

"Unlike tobacco CSR campaigns, soda company CSR campaigns explicitly aim to increase sales, including among young people."

Pepsi’s Refresh project took advertising dollars away from the Superbowl, the single largest advertising event in the U.S., and put the money toward a social media campaign encouraging community groups to "refresh" park lands, Cheyne said.

The company hired a marketing firm to have popular musicians perform and inform youth about the project, successfully targeting those aged 11 to 31, the researchers said.

The campaigns serve to distract from the soda industries' core business, Cheyne said.

Strong marketing forces

Soft drinks have become a cultural phenomenon, said nutrition professor Susan Whiting of the University of Saskatchewan in Saskatoon.

Having a bottle of pop once a month used to be a big deal, but now it is accepted with meals, Whiting said.

"We are consuming a huge amount of sugar and not knowing it," Whiting said.

Public health departments and regulators worked to expose how the tobacco industry's products are dangerous and even deadly. That information galvanized public support, Cheyne said.

Tobacco comparison

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Caleb Piper, 3, reaches for a bottle of root beer offered by his father in Illinois. Pop makers' corporate social responsibility campaigns target young people, public health experts say. (Seth Perlman/Associated Press)

Cigarette companies hid early studies on cancer, but soda companies haven’t done anything similar, said marketing professor Alan Middleton of York University in Toronto.

"Are they doing it so they are perceived better by the general public and by regulators? The answer is yes," Middleton said of the pop CSR campaigns.

"Are they doing it to disguise harmful effects, which is where I disagree with the authors' point in the analogy to tobacco, the answer is no."

A segment of society will see the campaigns and consider pop companies to be more engaged in the community, which is why they’re doing it, Middleton said.

"I think they are appealing to the wrong crowd," said teen Paul Cicero.

Teen Coulter Woodmansey said he drinks pop about once every other day.

"I didn’t have enough money to buy water so I bought that," Woodmansey said of his latest root beer purchase.

Food companies are rebranding themselves as "nutrition companies" offering business acumen and knowledge of food science to authorities for food production, malnutrition, obesity and poverty, a journal editorial launching the series said.

"The legitimization of food companies as global health experts is further fuelled by the growing number of private-public partnerships with public health organizations, ostensibly designed to foster collaborative action to improve health and well-being," the editors said in an article titled "The Food Industry is Ripe for Scrutiny."

The journal did not offer the industry’s perspective, saying it has been covered before and "fails to acknowledge their role in subverting the public health agenda, thus ignoring the deeper issues that this series aims to uncover."

The Canadian Beverage Association, which represents non-alcoholic drink makers, said pop in moderation isn't harmful.

With files from CBC's Melanie Nagy