An Open Letter to LeBron James

Drop your endorsements with Coca-Cola and McDonald's

Published on December 10, 2012 by Abdul El-Sayed

Dear LeBron,

Fresh off an extraordinary year leading the Miami Heat to an NBA title and the U.S. Men’s Basketball team to a gold medal in London, you should be a role model for what good health and regular exercise can do.

But instead, you’re doing the opposite by representing Coca-Cola and McDonald’s.

Seventeen percent of American kids are obese, and up to 1 in every 4 are overweight. The prevalence of obesity in American children has more than tripled since 1980.

According to many public health experts, childhood obesity is the most serious health issue facing our country right now—bigger than smoking, HIV/AIDS, and breast cancer. Why? We really don’t know what to do about it.

But we do know that advertising unhealthy foods to children is a big part of the problem. A study in the journal Obesity Reviews showed a clear link between watching advertisements for unhealthy foods and the number of snacks children ate on a daily basis. Another study in the European Journal of Public Health tells us that eliminating unhealthy food advertising to children could reduce obesity by up to 18 percent.

LeBron, your agreement to advertise Sprite for the Coca-Cola Company is worth $16 million over six years. Let’s do a little math to estimate how much sugar you’ll sell to our kids over that period.

Assuming that Coca-Cola breaks even on the deal (which is at least what it will do), then you should make the company back at least $16 million over six years. Coca-Cola makes about 21 cents on the dollar over all the products it sells, and a 20-ounce Sprite costs $1.39 on average. If Coca-Cola makes the same profit on 20-ounce Sprites, that means that you’ll have sold at least the equivalent of 54.4 million 20-ounce Sprites over the course of your six-year contract. Now, each one of those 20-ounce Sprites has 16 spoons of sugar in it, so LeBron, you’re responsible for selling over a billion spoons of sugar. Not to mention all of the McDonald’s grease you’re selling.

Beyond the billion spoons of sugar and the millions of Big Macs you’ll sell, perhaps the worst impact of your endorsements is the confusion it creates in kids’ minds.

Children see you accomplish extraordinary athletic feats on the basketball court night in and night out. At the same time, though, they see you supporting products their parents and doctors tell them are unhealthy. As young, impressionable children, that creates confusion about what is and is not healthy for them. After all, kids must think, how can Sprite and McDonald’s be unhealthy if LeBron James, the pinnacle of sports, is telling me to buy them?

And it’s not even like you need the extra dough you’re earning making American kids doughier. Last I checked, your estimated net worth was $110 million. Last year you earned $13 million through your contract with the Heat alone, not to mention your $90 million Nike deal.

You and I graduated high school in the same year. Since then, I’ve been a student trying to learn enough to make a difference in public health and medicine. You’ve been an international megastar athlete, garnering fame and fortune playing your favorite sport. It’s humbling to think that at 27, you could make more of a difference in public health by dropping these endorsements than I will in my whole career.

In the end, whether you like it or not, you are a role model in our society. Kids look up to you—many want to be just like you. While it may be unfair to expect that you weigh in on all of society’s problems, you do have particular weight when it comes to this one, which you represent—whether you like it or not—as an athlete. Don’t allow yourself to be used as a tool to confuse the messaging about what is and is not healthy for our kids.

LeBron, if you’re reading this, I know you know how to step it up and lead: I watched you do it in the finals against OKC, and I watched you do it again this summer in London. This is your opportunity to step it up in a bigger way. Be the leader we know you can be, and take a stand against endorsements for companies that are making our kids obese.

Just like on the court, if you lead, others will follow.


Abdul El-Sayed


Edited by Elaine Meyer and Jordan Lite

Correction: A previous version of this commentary listed LeBron James’s salary with the Miami Heat last season at $53 million. It was $13 million.

Abdul El-Sayed
Abdul El-Sayed is a social epidemiologist and physician-in-training. His research explores how our social realities make us sick. Abdul is also Fellow at Dēmos, a non-partisan public policy center in New York. His commentary engages healthy policy questions in the US and globally, with a particular focus on social inequalities and disease prevention in light of health trends. Follow him at @elabdul.

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Yes children and teens look up to LeBrun, but he has to make a living too. And isn’t it up to the parents and care givers whether or not to stop at a fast food joint for dinner? As parents and adults, it’s up to us to see that our children don’t eat out at every meal or drink sugary drinks. Let your kids know that it is okay to look up to Mr. James, but fast food and sugary drinks are very unhealthy. Try to teach them that, yes he endorsing those products, but don’t think he is eating at McDonald’s and drinking Coke all day. He would not be able to perform on the court. Healthy habits begin at home.

Indeed you’ve got a point.

That being said : Pointing someone in public is not polite, my mother used to say. And God knows, us Canadian’s are known to be polite ( Not really true, but anyway).
If ever Mr Lebron is a “friend” or an aquaintance in your life time, as you may are for him, being push to the wall is not a good feeling.

Of course you’re right, nobody should endorse any product, that create obesity.
If it’s not Coca-Cola and McDonald’s, it will be Beer company and Car Builders.
Beer create obesity too and taking your car to go at the convenience store near your house is too. And we are not talking about pollution and cancer, created by those products.

We are not in the 60’s anymore. Education is the key. People knows it is not really good. Low pricing will certainly not help. It is not normal that we should pay more for fruits and vegetables, then junkfood. Taxing those products will do more for our children, than blaming it on Lebron James.
It was Micheal Jordan before and Magic Johnson also, endorsing products not good for our health. And if it is not LeBron, someone else will take the pay check.

Education is the key : If I know that is bad for me, it is not Lebron James or anybody, that will make me eat that crap. Even if they give him a billion. I won’t… anymore. Because I used too. Now I know. I realise.

God bless

Excellent letter! I really hope he does look at it, and although he might not cancel any contracts, he might not renew one. And I just remembered it when you wrote that we graduated high school same time as this guy… gotta love our society!

I think this kind of targeted addressing of celebrities whose influences are vast and very significant is important for public health. I commend Abdul for his decision to write this and I think that we need to do more of this kind of work in public health if we want our voices to be heard.

Concluding that companies like McDonald’s make children obese is like concluding gun manufacturers are responsible for murders. Get a clue people…

    Nice try, Ronald McDonald.

    That’s a really overused cliche you have there, Jim. The first problem with your analogy is your conclusion that guns don’t cause deaths that wouldn’t have otherwise happened. I would say a big percentage of gun violence is very heat of the moment and impulsive — not premeditated. Sure, a premeditated murder can occur no problem without a gun. But a fight at a night club? A heated argument between teenagers on a basketball court? These rarely result in deaths without a gun but sometimes do when a gun is brought into the picture and someone wants to flex their muscle.

    Secondly, we know McDonalds food is bad. It’s addictive. And McDonald’s gets people while their young and just learning to form habits. Of course its part of the problem for obesity. Don’t kid yourself.

      Leave Jim alone. He doesn’t know any better. He’s the same guy that earlier said cigarettes don’t kill people and that children should be allowed to smoke. Hee haw!

    Sugar doesn’t cause diabetes? Alcohol doesn’t cause drunkedness? By your logic, pot doesn’t make folks high. Are you for legalizing it? Certainly not, I am willing to bet: Silly people always clinging to your guns!

      Oh oh, the Hamburger Police are out in force! Here’s a news flash for ya ABDUL. You aren’t going to set public policy for anybody. Period. People like you are always trying to tell everyone else what they should or shouldn’t be doing. Abdul, guess what you can do with that letter?

    You’re missing the point. Certainly, the obesity problem is extremely complex. You can’t place sole blame on McDonald’s… that’s illogical.

    But you also can’t escape the facts: children look up to LeBron. And whether we like it or not, his endorsement of McDonald’s makes it cool to eat fast food, which CERTAINLY can’t be helping the obesity epidemic.

McD’s seems like our golden ticket out of obesity

Abdul – I’m watching CNBC: MCDonald’s beats sales expectations

Good job, Abdul!

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