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Behind the scenes of the Times’ takedown of a Coke-funded “front group”

coke cansA story published in the New York Times last week called attention to Coca-Cola’s relationship to a nonprofit that promotes the idea that lack of exercise, not diet, is the cause of the obesity epidemic.

The Times and followup stories in other media focus on the many financial ties between Coke and influential physician-scientists that serve as principles at the nonprofit Global Energy Balance Network (GEBN). The nonprofit “promotes the argument that weight-conscious Americans are overly fixated on how much they eat and drink while not paying enough attention to exercise,” according to the Times story.

Would the world’s largest soft drink manufacturer really try to shift public perception about the declining soft drink industry by creating what one critic called a “front group” to say it’s ok to eat junk food, just exercise more?

That does appear to be the case.

GEBN’s vice president, Steven Blair, and others affiliated with the group have said there’s no problem with Coke’s support of their organization because they’ve been transparent about it.

Unfortunately, it’s been a very reluctant transparency. One might even say forced.

The GEBN website didn’t disclose Coca-Cola’s backing until Yoni Freedhoff, an obesity expert at the University of Ottawa and a HealthNewsReview.org contributor, contacted the group to inquire about its funders. Freedhoff tipped off the Times to the story.

Here are some examples of the financial conflicts of interest between Coke and GEBN researchers:

  • Using state open records laws, the NYT learned that Coke donated $1.5 million in 2014 to launch the GEBN.
  • Under the Freedom of Information Act, the NYT learned that Coke gave nearly $4 million in funding to projects led by GEBN co-founders Blair and Gregory Hand, dean of the West Virginia School of Public Health.
  • Under the Colorado Open Records Act, the NYT learned that Coke gave an unrestricted monetary gift of $1 million to the University of Colorado Foundation for the purposes of funding the GEBN. GEBN president James Hill is director of the the University of Colorado’s Center for Human Nutrition.
  • Coca-Cola’s chief scientific officer has tweeted about the nonprofit on Twitter without mentioning Coke’s ties to the group.
  • Two research papers GEBN cites to promote its claim that the key to preventing weight gain is “maintaining an active lifestyle and eating more calories” contain a disclosure that both studies were supported by Coca-Cola.
yoni freedhoff

Yoni Freedhoff, MD

Freedhoff first became aware of Coke’s campaign to change the way consumers feel about soft drinks and fast foods in 2014 when writing about a food industry-designed elementary school curriculum called “Energy balance 101.

When he saw Coca-Cola’s chief scientific officer Rhona Applebaum promoting GEBN in her tweet stream it raised a red flag. “I figured that couldn’t be a coincidence,” Freedhoff says, “so I headed over to the GEBN website to see who its funders were. Strangely, and I say strangely because acknowledging a non-profit’s funders publicly is likely a very important thing and thank you for non-profits to do, there was no mention of funding whatsoever. Consequently I sent emails to both GEBN and to Steven Blair and shortly thereafter both wrote back disclosing Coca-Cola’s funding and reporting that the web site now had mention of same.”

Freedhoff thought the story was big enough to warrant a larger audience than his own blog and fortunately the Times pursued it.

But wait. There’s more.

Last year veteran medical journalist Larry Husten, who writes for Forbes and publishes the CardioBrief website, wrote about Coke’s ties to another obesity expert, Carl Lavie, a Louisiana cardiologist who co-authored some of the Coke-funded research papers. It’s interesting to read how Lavie justifies researchers’ COI, including acceptance of hypothetical funding from the tobacco industry, in an interview with Husten.  An example:

Husten: “What are your thoughts about Coke (and other companies) having financial relationships with health organizations like the ACC [American College of Cardiology] and the AHA [American Heart Association]? How would the objectivity of these organizations be affected by these relationships in regard to public policy advocacy, such as sodas in school or a tax on SSBs [Sugar-sweetened beverages]? And to push this question: should organizations like these accept support from tobacco companies?”

Lavie: “As long as it is all out in the open, I do not believe that the ACC or AHA would sell their scientific statements. Also, the money they would accept would have no strings attached and be for educational purposes. The AHA is not going to endorse or not endorse products based on their funding source, and I am sure the AHA/ACC would be happy to get funds from Pepsi, and many of the fast food chains, who also have some “healthier choices” compared to others. McDonald’s and Taco Bell are not the cause of the obesity epidemic, lack of physical activity is. I suspect that these organizations may feel uncomfortable taking funds from the tobacco industry, but I am personally OK as long as it is disclosed. If the tobacco companies, which clearly cause adverse health outcomes, provide funds from their profits that in some ways lead to promotion of better health, why would this be a bad thing?”

Larry Husten

Larry Husten

Husten also uncovered another interesting nugget. Blair, GEBN’s vice president, was chosen by Coca-Cola, an Olympic sponsor, to be a torch-bearer at the London Olympic Games. And he’s not the only one in the exercise promotion arena receiving that perk.

Both Freedhoff and Husten said the Coke campaign isn’t unique.

“As far as extreme or norm – certainly when it comes to obesity and nutrition, there’s a great deal of food industry funding research, conferences, travel, etc.,” said Freedhoff. “For examples in nutrition, Michele Simon’s certainly compiled some damning information on the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics – the same group that had put its seal of approval on Kraft Singles.

“Sadly it would appear too as if the Obesity Society has gone down that road as well.”

Husten has reported that the president of the Institute of Medicine, cardiologist Victor Dzau, was a member of the Pepsico board of directors. Last year he wrote on his website, “Coke also pays a lot of money to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute to put a red dress logo on the Diet Coke label, while the American Heart Association has struck deals with, among others, Cheetos and Subway. I am sure that these represent just the tip of a very large iceberg.”

Husten said he doesn’t blame the companies. They’re doing what they’re supposed to do — generating sales and making profits. “I blame the doctors and medical organizations that compromise their principles because of the money involved.”


Kathlyn Stone is an associate editor for HealthNewsReview.org.

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Comments (1)

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Laurence Alter

August 24, 2015 at 6:26 am

A thanks for providing ‘the other side’ and quoting (in full, it appears) Mr. Lavie’s response. Basically, he’s saying that once tenuous and questionable ‘connections’ are out in the open, it’s fair. It seems naive to pre-suppose that ‘money don’t buy love’ [or, amended for this medical analogy, don’t buy untainted medical research] but it’s good for all to see that naivite in operation so you know the thinking behind ‘the other side.’ As an aside, “Playboy” magazine’s great writing (fiction and non-fiction) would not exist IF their profits from their (mild) pornography were to dry up. You can rail against their (supposedly) offensive female nudity, but financially, that pays for presenting top writing and top writers and interviews with important public figures that you wouldn’t see otherwise. Not a perfect analogy, but worth thinking about, me thinks. (Obviously, not a perfect analogy: porn doesn’t taint “Playboy”‘s journalism – I guess! – but I think the general point is valid.)
Respectfully,
Laurence