Doughnut Giveaway for COVID Vaccinations Raises Twitter Hackles

Krispy Kreme doughnuts, an iconic American food brand, landed in hot water this week when it announced that anyone in the US who had received a COVID-19 vaccine was eligible to receive a free doughnut — as many as one a day, through the end of 2021.

“We all want to get COVID-19 behind us as fast as possible and we want to support everyone doing their part to make the country safe by getting vaccinated as soon as the vaccine is available to them,” said David Skena, Krispy Kreme’s chief marketing officer, in a press release earlier this week.

The company also said it would provide free doughnuts to healthcare workers and volunteers at “select vaccination centers” in the coming weeks.

And to confuse the issue further, Krispy Kreme also said that for those who “make the personal decision to not receive the COVID vaccine,” they could still get a free doughnut and coffee on any Monday through May 24. “We’re not here to judge. We’re here to spread joy,” said a Krispy Kreme spokesperson when asked by Medscape Medical News about this gesture.

Soon after Krispy Kreme tweeted out its offer on Monday, Twitter erupted.


Many thanked the company for providing an incentive for vaccination. Naysayers were quick to condemn the Charlotte, North Carolina-based company for promoting poor nutrition, obesity, the ingestion of a sugary treat, and for giving a pass to those who didn’t want to be vaccinated. There were tweets about the nanny state, fat-shaming, and misplaced priorities.

Others wanted America to just plain chill out.

“Are We Really Upset Over Incentivizing Vaccinations With Donuts?”

Leana Wen, MD, a former Baltimore, Maryland city health commissioner, and current media gadfly, helped fire up the storm with her Twitter stream.

She applauded Krispy Kreme for its “out-of-the-box thinking,” but noted that “donuts are a treat that’s not good for health if eaten every day.” In addition, if someone ate the Original Glazed daily without changing their diet or exercise regimen, “they’d gain approximately 15 pounds by the end of 2021,” tweeted Wen.

The chief scientific officer of a company that has a weight loss-related program said Wen’s comments weren’t welcome. “Being an expert in medicine and some aspects of health doesn’t make someone an obesity expert,” tweeted Emily Dhurandhar, PhD.

Wen’s tweet was too much for Michelle Villegas, an activist for The National Domestic Workers Alliance. “Fat phobia runs rampant in the medical community and it’s a real bummer because odds are this tweet isn’t going to help anyone, or change Krispy Kreme’s policy — it’s just going to trigger disordered eating and feelings of shame in people who are already struggling,” she tweeted.

Meanwhile, “Some of the responses to the #KrispyKreme donut vaccine debate really have me thinking about how paternalistic #publichealth and #medicine can be,” tweeted Uché Blackstock, MD, founder and CEO of Advancing Health Equity. “We’re in the midst of a pandemic. Are we really upset over incentivizing vaccinations with donuts?”

Ashish Jha, MD, dean of the Brown University School of Public Health, Providence, Rhode Island, and a frequent media personality, agreed that the fuss seemed to be much ado about a doughnut.  “Right now, I’d rather not hear about donuts and weight gain. Pandemic, people. Pandemic,” he tweeted, adding that he supported the offer.

Peter Hotez, MD, PhD, a Baylor College of Medicine pediatrician who has studied anti-vaccine behavior, tweeted, “I’m all in, thank you @krispykreme.”

Moderation Is Key: One Doughnut Won’t Do Too Much Harm

Many just couldn’t believe that free doughnuts could cause so much controversy.

“I agree too much sugar is bad, but one doughnut is not going to turn anyone into a sugar/doughnut addict,” tweeted Mandana Donoghue, an oral pathologist. She recommended foregoing other sweets on the doughnut day. “Just chill & enjoy. #Moderation is key,” she said.

“Giving away free donuts won’t worsen the obesity epidemic,” tweeted Spencer Nadolsky, MD, a family medicine and obesity specialist.

Emily Hahn, MD, a palliative care physician, tweeted that “Food is love.” Added Hahn, “So thank you, @krispykreme, for showing us love.”

Not everyone liked that response, however. Some who responded to Hahn’s tweet said they didn’t think a doctor should be promoting sugary foods. Others said obesity was a prime risk factor for COVID-19.

“I’d rather have a donut than an eating disorder,” tweeted sheologian. “I’ve had both and can personally attest that I would rather have a donut.”

Michelle Vicari, an activist aiming to stop weight bias, tweeted, “Obesity is complex and not just about food,” and added, “Weight bias, stigma, fat-shaming needs to end. It harms people.”

James Fell, a historian and columnist, tweeted, “Good morning everyone except people who have no understanding of the multifactorial parameters involved in obesity and use the free @krispykreme donut campaign as an excuse to fat shame people.”

Krispy Kreme’s spokesperson told Medscape that its doughnuts “are an occasional indulgence best enjoyed in moderation.”  And the company is “certainly not asking people to get a free Original Glazed doughnut every day, we’re just making it available through the end of the year,” said the spokesperson.

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Alicia Ault is a Lutherville, Maryland-based freelance journalist whose work has appeared in publications including Smithsonian.com, the New York Times, and the Washington Post. You can find her on Twitter @aliciaault.

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