MARTINEZ — Nearly 20 Contra Costa County physicians resigned in disgust Wednesday from a national professional association because of its alliance with the Coca-Cola Co., which they said conflicts with their fight against obesity.

"I am appalled and ashamed of this partnership between Coca-Cola and the American Academy of Family Physicians," said Dr. William Walker, director of health services for the county.

"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 made the comments in front of Contra Costa Regional Medical Center, shortly before he ripped up his academy card. He had been a member for 25 years.

Nearly 20 other county physicians joined him during the lunchtime event and said they, too, will leave the organization.

"This is reminiscent of when the tobacco industry enlisted doctors to endorse cigarette brands as mild," Walker said.

Founded in 1947, the academy represents more than 94,600 family physicians and medical students nationwide.

Earlier this month, it announced that it has formed a "consumer alliance" with the Coca-Cola Co. The firm will provide a grant that the academy will use to develop educational materials for its Web site, FamilyDoctor.org.

"We look forward to working with the Coca-Cola Co., and other companies "... on the development of educational materials to teach consumers how to make the right choices and incorporate the products they love into a balanced diet and a healthy lifestyle," said Dr. Lori Heim, president-elect of the organization, in a statement announcing the partnership.

Responding to the resignations, Douglas Henley, executive vice president and chief executive of the academy, said Wednesday that he was disappointed to lose members, but he said he hoped people will not rush to judgment before the new content appears on the Web site early next year.

"We're very interested in addressing the issue of obesity," he added.

"We feel that the consumer alliance with Coca-Cola will help us do just that in a better and more forceful way."

Henley declined to reveal how much money Coca-Cola will provide, but said it was in the six figures.

The Web site information will help consumers make wise decisions about food and beverage choices, he said.

"We're going to be candid about what the peer-reviewed literature says about" sugary drinks and obesity, Henley stressed.

But Walker and other physicians argued that partnering with the soda industry "is like having the fox guard the hen house."

"Some of you may remember the 1940s and 50s when physicians were used on billboards and magazine ads to promote tobacco smoking," Walker said.

But then the U.S. surgeon general, the American Heart Association, the American Cancer Society and the American Lung Association played leadership roles in alerting the public that cigarettes and secondhand smoke contain cancer-causing chemicals.

"I would expect no less than that kind of leadership from the American Academy of Family Physicians," Walker said.

"Their decision to take soda money is all the more unconscionable because, unlike doctors in the '40s, they well know the negative health impact of soda," he said.

More than 60 percent of young people age 12 to 17 drink one or more sugar-sweetened beverage per day, according to a recent study by the UCLA Center for Health Policy Research. That is equivalent to consuming 39 pounds of sugar each year, Walker noted.

He and other health experts worry that rising numbers of overweight and obese children are leading to rapid increases in type II diabetes and other problems.

"The real problem here is our children are being put at risk," Walker said.

Reach Sandy Kleffman at 925-943-8249.